Friday, February 21, 2003

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for February 2003

When I reviewed the January issue I was making noises about renewing after all, but now I'm kind of glad I didn't.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Seasons of the Ansarac." Except that the idyllic existence described therein is a little too idyllic. I do like the way that LeGuin's anthropological sketches reflect on our own culture and raise questions about it, but I don't know if they're stories, exactly. Of course, the same could be said of some of Borges's work, so perhaps I shouldn't quibble. I did enjoy reading it, but I wonder if anyone who wasn't a Grand Master could get away with it.

Next is "A Quartet of Mini-Fantasies" by Arthur Porges. It is, indeed, made up of four very short shorts, each of which must I suppose be looked at individually. The first is creepy and effective. The second, a bit overblown. The third is a joke, and not a very good one. The fourth feels unfinished. The problem with short shorts is that they must be dense with meaning in order to have any impact. Every word must mean something. It's something like poetry in that. (Something like, but not identical to.) To me, these don't justify their own existence. They are snippets, some of them fragments of something larger, some devoid of meaning and thus pointless. I think of Yasunari Kawabata's "palm-of-the-hand" stories. Longer than these, true, but dense with ideas and questions which haunt the reader long afterwards. These are like crackers. Light wafers. If they were wildly entertaining I wouldn't care that they don't contain the secrets of the universe. But they aren't wildly entertaining.

Jack O'Connell's "The Swag from Doc Hawthorne's" is a worthy follow-up to his previous story in F&SF, "Legerdemain," about which I can recall little except liking it. That story was about books, though, and this one is too, although it mainly concerns two burglars named Darcey and Yuk Tang. From a very realistic and reasonable description of their lives, their jobs, and their disciplined approach to robbery, the story becomes weirder, with an informant who flakes and runs, and a couple of buyers for loot the pair haven't stolen yet. The ending is ambiguous and frightening, though it could be a little more so. Good story.

James Sallis has a story here called "The Genre Kid," which is odd and possibly a little too clever, but nonetheless thought-provoking. The medium in which the young artist works is a bit unusual, but I won't give it away here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The Third Alternative, Issue 32

In the last entry I talked up TTA as "possibly the best SF/Fantasy/Horror magazine publishing right now." (Uh-oh; he's quoting himself. Stand back, folks.) It occurs to me that I ought to explain. Firstly, the look of this magazine is beyond any other. Truly professional art, with amazing covers, great layout designs, readable type. Only Realms of Fantasy comes close, really, and TTA isn't plastered with ads like ROF is. Second, and probably most important, the fiction is better overall than any other magazine I read regularly. Perhaps I'm just the demographic, but the darkness of these tales hits me where I live, in ways that F&SF, Talebones, etc. don't.

Joel Lane's "The Hard Copy" is a strange, spare story about something like love but which would never call itself that. I think it's about denying, even to yourself, certain difficult truths. It's a quiet story, but it's well done.

Graham Joyce's "The Coventry Boy" is an excerpt from a novel which recently came out in the UK called The Facts of Life which has nothing to do with Tootie or Blair so sod off, as Graham might say. I don't mean to imply that I know the man, but I met him at the World Fantasy Con in October and he's something else in person. Not that it has any bearing on his writing, so I'll shut up about how I'm jealous of his craggy good looks and all that. Because Graham Joyce isn't in this story, at least, not in any way which would make you think, "Oh, this guy's up to something." Nope. This is about the blitz, and about a girl who knows when it's going to come to Coventry, and what she does on the night it arrives. Glenn Miller is part of the story, and a boy who may or may not be dead, and radio waves. As I say, it's only an excerpt, from a novel we haven't yet seen on this side of the pond. I'll be waiting.

In addition to the stories, this issue of TTA has interviews with Mark Chadbourn and Neil Gaiman, an essay on film by Christopher Fowler, an essay on Japan's dark arts by John Paul Catton, book reviews by various and sundry, Allen Ashley's regular misanthropic column and a piece on the works of eccentric and intermittently genius filmmaker Guy Maddin by my good friend Derek Hill.

Crimewave 4: Mood Indigo

Crimewave is published by the same people who do The Third Alternative, which is possibly the best SF/Fantasy/Horror magazine publishing right now. Crimewave does crime fiction, however, as if the title wasn't clear enough. My friend Lynda Rucker--who incidentally has been published three times in TTA and has a story in the current issue, #33--kept telling me I had to check out Crimewave, so when I saw this issue at Dreamhaven I had to pick it up. Weirdly--since it's the only issue they had there--it's from a couple of years ago. Not that age has any bearing on quality, of course: this is a beautifully done magazine, on heavy stock, with lovely art and, well, let's talk about the stories:

"The Grift of the Magi" by Sean Doolittle is about three small-timers on their way to what they think is going to be their big score. A car crash derails their plans, and when an unsuspecting family stops to help them out, the Christmas that follows is merry for absolutely no one. What's most interesting about this story is the way the presence of the three crooks unravels the "straights," stripping away their carefully constructed outer shells. There's no bang in this story, but it's a thoughtful piece, and it works.

"Leaving Seven Sisters" by Simon Avery may be my favorite story in this volume. It's got some fairly cliched elements--the ex-con trying to keep his nose clean, and the old cellmate who gets him back into trouble--but a squirmingly real description of a corpse, a disorienting introduction, and an ending which is amoral and sentimental at the same time, make this a great story, in my opinion.

"Daughter" by Cliff Burns is a creepy tale of abduction, indoctrination, and escape. There is no happy ending, and little hope, and the bleakness is powerfully rendered.

"Junk Male" by Chaz Brenchley has an unfortunate title and perhaps the first boy-pimp detective in crime fiction. Perhaps. There's a lot going on here, much of it darkly fascinating. If not for the title . . .

Brian Hodge's "Miles To Go Before I Weep" is a quest story, of sorts. Tom agrees to give Allison a ride from the California desert town to Mississippi--he's on his way to Florida, after all. On the way he learns she's going back to kill someone, and he may be falling in love with her besides. The victim is just about the best evil talker since Angelus, and he leaves Tom wondering if he and Allison have any future after all. A close second to "Leaving Seven Sisters" for my favorite story here.

Lastly, Antony Mann has a brief story called "Shopping," which manages to tell the story of a love affair gone badly with nothing but shopping lists. Clever and funny.