case I've not stated this explicitly, I prefer reading novels to
reading short fiction. I'll have to say it's in part the immersion
factor, the ability to get lost in a good book, so to speak, over
a number of days. And a novel allows the writer the space to offer
up episodes and prose effects that really can't be wedged into
an effective short story. A novel is able to achieve a level of
detail that's not often possible in a short story, novelette or
But in genre fiction, the short story still holds a lot power.
I subscribe to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The
Alternative and Interzone, as well as the The New Yorker, Locus,
and The Fortean Times. F&SF comes closest to being cheap -- it's
$4.50 per issue. But when you write out a check for an annual subscription
to these magazines, well, you want to get you money's worth. You'd
think that would mean reading them cover to cover, but that's not
exactly what I've been doing, until this month, when I decided that
if I were going to write a comprehensive review of the magazines,
I'd best do a comprehensive, obsessive, cover-to-cover reading. At
first I was just going to read F&SF and Interzone, but last week's
New Yorker grabbed my attention with an article about fantasy icon
Lord Dunsany, and I found myself reading that obsessively as well.
The plan -- pretty much adhered to -- was to read an article from
one magazine, then the next then the next. Now I can’t say
I read the entire issue of Locus cover-to-cover, simply because they
review a lot of books that are in my inbox, and I don’t read
reviews of books I'm going to read and review to ensure that I don't
end up simply regurgitating -- even unconsciously -- what someone
Before I even
start, I have to congratulate either my own good luck or F&SF
for actually listening to what I wrote about the previous issue.
I had whinged about the fine cover illustration annihilated
by the address label which, I said, could just as easily go on the
back of the magazine. Now, from what I can tell, the fine cover image
on this month's magazine has nothing to do with any of the stories
inside. But it's very nice and arrived unscathed -- the mailing label
was attached to the back, not the front, of the magazine. I can't
imagine, really, that they read my whinge and changed their ways,
but heck, it sure was nice to enjoy the cover art undisturbed. Interzone
arrives bagged, so that's not an issue. For all the quality within,
I frankly wish that The New Yorker managed an address sticker
that covered the entire image on the magazine under review. Yikes
yikes again. With the money that goes into that publication, they
could really be doing something special. Yes, I know, I know, everyone
loves the friggin' New Yorker cartoons but me (though I'll make an
exception for Gahan Wilson's work), but sheesh. Do they have to put
them on the cover now? Look, we've all seen the giant coffee table
book of cartoons, got it, yeah. Go hire JK Potter, please! He deserves
a big part of your ample piles of dough.
So I stacked up
the magazines and started reading. First in my queue was Alexander
Irvine's 'The Lorelei' from F&SF. Readers know
that I'm a fan of Irvine's. I thought his first novel, 'A
Scattering of Jades' was an excellent work and I look forward
to reading his most recent novel, 'One Soldier, One King'. On the
other hand, I
hadn’t liked his last science fiction story in F&SF.
This time around though, the signs were more propitious. 'The Lorelei'
was set in the same nineteenth century New York portrait painting
scene as Jeffrey Ford's 'The
Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque'. So Irvine
had returned to the same century he'd dealt with so well in 'A Scattering
of Jades'. Moreover, the story itself told of a young painter who
happens to meet up with Albert Pinkham Ryder, one of the more interesting
real painters who showed up in Ford's novel. The prose was very nicely
turned, and the characters were deftly portrayed. But for me, the
supernatural lynchpin of the story was a little too blurry. Though
Irvine had done an outstanding job at scene-setting, in the end I
felt like I missed something. I'd certainly commend F&SF,
however, for publishing a story I might hope to find in The New
The New Yorker were in one of its occasional "genre
fiction is OK with us" moods. I wonder whether I would have
liked it better in a more literary setting. Hmm.
Then I picked up Interzone. Nice, nice cover by Edward Noon. What
a guy! I whipped through the entertaining introductions by editors
Jetse de Vries -- who spoke to more general trends in the magazine
-- and Andy Cox, who handled the nuts and bolts details of what was
happening with issue numbers, typefaces, fonts and backgrounds. Both
did an outstanding job in the Thankless Task category. Langford's
Ansible is nice to see in print, though I subscribe to the email
version. It tends to get more carefully read in the large font Andy's
chosen than it might on my computer. So it was a quick journey to
'Enta Geweorc' by Nicholas Waller. The scenario for this story is
classic, if familiar science fiction. Peter Collard is returning
to ruined, mostly deserted earth on his own dime, under his own authority.
Smart war machines grew too smart and decided humanity had to go.
Well, it is a familiar theme, and it's handled fairly well. Waller
writes some nice prose, creates a couple of interesting characters
and the story offers a surprise or two that you might see coming
but are likely to enjoy nonetheless. Reading it, I felt myself falling
backwards in time in a good way. It reminded me of the first science
fiction I encountered, as well as of the earlier Neal Asher stories.
I started to feel like a teenager, hiding my head between luridly
illustrated magazine covers -- without the lurid illustrations, mind
Noon rules OK! New Yorker, give him a call!
Then I popped over to The New Yorker, where I read 'Minor
Magus' by Laura Miller of Salon.com.
This was the article that had made me open up and pay attention to
this week's issue. Opposite a full-page,
four-color advertisement for the latest Annie Proulx collection of
short stories, Miller gives an entertaining and illuminating look
at the life and writing of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, better
known to fantasy readers as Lord Dunsany. Like many of my readers
(I presume), I cut my fantasy-reading teeth on the 1970's mass-market
paperback editions of his work, published by Ballantine Books under
their Adult Fantasy imprint and edited by Lin Carter. Miller gives a
fascinating look at the life and writing of this fantasy icon, one
of the writers revered by H. P. Lovecraft. For any reader of Dunsany,
Lovecraft or fantasy, this article provides a great look at a peculiar
creative life. Plus, she gets bonus points for mentioning one of
my favorite stories by Dunsany, 'Idle Days on the Yann'. She even
talks about Night Shade books recent release of the 'The
Collected Jorkens', and gives the stories within a rather positive review.
When I sent email to Jason over at Night Shade congratulating him,
he seemed rather bemused by all the coverage. But I say more power
to them -- and a hearty thanks to Miller, who wrote a compelling
article about a major name in obscure fiction circles for a major
Next up was F&SF,
with John G. McDaid's 'Keyboard Practice, Consisting of an Aria with
Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord With Two Manuals'.
Yep, there's a title you’re going to be spinning off to your
friends and relatives. This longish 'novelet' (as F&SF likes
to call them, which generates a red line in my stupid Word processor),
once again takes up the theme of art, as did Irvine's tale before
it. This time around, it's a nearish-future science fiction tale
of a piano competition. McDaid does some entertaining world-building,
and wisely breaks this long story into 29 short 'Variations'. There's
a lot of good characterization and some nice cogitations about music
and art. As I read it, I was, alas, underwhelmed. As I write about
it now, my memory of the story is more entertaining than it felt
to actually read it. I suspect that's because it was rather tough
to read in one sitting, and reading a piece of short fiction across
multiple sittings is sub-optimal. But to its credit, the many short
chapters facilitated the splintered read, and thus were a plus and
cover, no address label. Cool!
Then it was back to Interzone for 'Problem Project' by Hugo A. O.
Spencer. I liked this story a lot. It had humor, it was really weird,
it was broken into little segments that were fun to read and made
the single-sitting reading very enjoyable. This was a wonderful little
slice of surreal SF.
Meanwhile, back at F&SF, I read the most entertaining book reviews
by Charles De Lint and Elizabeth Hand. Since they both write great
books, it stands to reason that their book reviews are well-worth
reading. Noted author Arthur Porges handed in a one-pager titled
'Born Bad' that frankly didn’t leave much of an impression.
But then, The New Yorker beckoned.
The major piece
of the issue was by 'Reporter at Large' Burkhard Bilger, and titled
'God Doesn't Need Ole Anthony'. It nails to the
wall the precise reason that this magazine holds such a powerful
place in the American publishing scene. It's the story of Ole (pronounced
Oh-Lee) Anthony, the founder and president of the Trinity Foundation, "a
religious community in East Dallas that functions variously as a
rehab center, a soup kitchen, a Christian publishing house and a
private detective firm." Like me, you might want to write him
off from this description as another Texan televangelist, but that's
far from the truth. "'These guys think he's Satan incarnate,'" one
of Anthony's informants tells Bilger.
Anthony and friend.
The Trinity Foundation takes its name not from the Father, etc, but
rather from Anthony's time working for the Air Force from 1956 to
1968, when he set up seismographs and other equipment to detect nuclear
explosions. In the summer of 1958, Anthony was in the Marshall Islands,
trying to calibrate his equipment against what Air Force estimated
to be a 3.5-megaton nuclear explosion. "...but it was equal
to 9.3 megatons instead. Standing on the shore of an island thirty
miles away, Anthony watched the target island disintegrate in a blinding
flash. A few second later, the blowback hit him -- a shock wave of
wind and sound so powerful that it knocked him into the water."
The rest of the article details Anthony's fascinating journey through
the hardscrabble world of Christian broadcasting. Now he and his
crew investigate other Christian broadcasters, and their results
have become the basis for lawsuits, news stories, and television
exposés. Rest assured that this is a stellar piece of writing,
and that Anthony rises up above the reader like some iconic character
from a Flannery O'Connor story. I couldn't put it down, regretted
finishing it, and have re-read portions because the writing and the
story are so strong. Don’t miss it.
It was hard, I admit, and not entirely fair to jump from something
like the story of Ole Anthony to Interzone. But that magazine
has such a different vibe that it really held its own. Their interview
pinned down a personality from the SF world that can come close to
keeping up with Ole Anthony. Followed by Michael Jasper's 'Redemption,
Drawing Near', Interzone once again drew me into the peculiarly
teenaged world of middle-aged men reading about aliens. In this case,
aliens arrive on earth and it proves that a priest will hold the
key to communicating with them. As with the other stories in this
issue of Interzone, 'Redemption, Drawing Near' effectively
cast me into a science-fiction reading haze. Yes, I did notice a
couple of words missing, but the story was strong enough to flow
past them. It didn't
cover new ground, exactly, but it covered old ground gracefully.
like I was
reading genuine, gosh-wow science-damn fiction and enjoying it.
So then it's back
to The New Yorker and this time, I'm determined to read
the fiction. And it's clear we're talking about the sort
of fiction that Michael Chabon calls "the contemporary, quotidian,
plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story". Now, don't get
me wrong. I like a CQPMOTRS as much as the next guy, probably more.
This issue's contribution to the genre, 'Foreigners' by Andrew Hagan
is a stellar example. But for me, you know, as much as I liked the
story -- quite a bit, about a woman's relationship with her aunt
I couldn't help thinking that it might have been more entertaining
had it included an alien, or maybe teleportation. You can get all
old, but still never grow up, apparently.
somebody shut those guys up.
So, then, back to F&SF. I enjoyed the hell out of Paul DiFillipo's
'Plumage from Pegasus' even though I can’t say for sure whether
it was an article or a story. Then finally, I was up to that point
in the magazine when what I considered a sure thing was up to bat.
That would be Bruce Sterling. Now, I'm sorry Bruce, they're going
to call everything you ever write in the future blankpunk, and I'm
sure you’re used to it. But 'The Blemmye's Stratagem' is nothing
less than stellar, wild, hairy-eyed fantasy set in some sort of alternate
Crusaders history -- I don't know, I'm not a Crusades historian,
though the story made me wish I was. It also made me look up the
word in the title on the Internet, and I was glad I did. You want
to give Ole Anthony a run for his money, folks? Hire up Sterling
to write something so weird, so wild, so over-the-top that you'll
feel like the scorpions are coming out of your brain. But, oh, where
is JK Potter when you need him? Hopefully, on a gig for The New Yorker.
They need him.
Nick Lowe's 'Mutant Popcorn' isn't so much film reviews as non-frothing
essay -- good fun, and well done for not being a review. We've all
read reviews and most of us have seen the films by this point in
time. Reading informed thought about a variety of genre projects
is just the right take.
very special issue.
By this time, the following week's New Yorker is out, once again
featuring a must-read article from the "Reporter at Large".
This week it's David Grann's 'Mysterious Circumstances', about the
death of a Holmes scholar. And coincidentally, I'm sure, since I
was talking about being a Crusades historian, Joan Acocella writes
about two books that re-examine and de-define the crusades in 'Holy
Smoke'. Look New Yorker, how fast do you think I can read? Or do
you just expect that The New Yorker is all we read? Probably the
latter. And while that may not be a bad deal, oh, the hubris, the
hubris. What could ever sting like this?
So we jump over to F&SF. There it is. Esther Friesner's
'Last Man Standing', another damn fantasy. I'm thinking to myself, "This
is the magazine of Fantasy and just a smidgeon of Science Fiction,
and I don't want to read something by Esther Friesner. Fantasy schmantasy,
priests, warriors, 'Great king's burials' and great Caesar's goddamned
ghost!" But, I sigh, I suck in it, and start...only to find
myself captivated by some of the best comedic writing I've encountered
yet. 'Last Man Standing' was an outstanding finish to F&SF,
and regrettably, Friesner goes into my list of authors to seek out.
mean, anyone who makes me laugh out loud deserves my money. This
tale of a clever slave is chock full of witty dialogue -- think P.
G. Wodehouse does Robert E. Howard. No shouting at the typewriter!
With that strong
a finish, I was a little bit worried about how Interzone would fare.
But the final two stories covered both ends of the spectrum.
Elizabeth Bear contributes the issue's long-title story (apparently
they're de rigueur) 'When You Visit the Magoebaskloof Hotel, Be Certain
Not to Miss the Samango Monkeys'. It was worth every word of the
title and more. Bear's story of life on our world and others is powerful
fiction, pure and simple, that just happens to be set in the future.
And, in part, on another planet. Great illustrations by Josh Finney
could only be improved by a full four-color printing that I'd happily
pay for. Bear has a new novel coming out next year, 'Hammered' and
it's definitely on my hot list. My contact over at Random House describes
it as "gritty SF", and this story really whets my appetite.
Hey is Interzone doing just what a great magazine does? Yep, damn
it. Now I want to read more.
The final story
in Interzone is 'Cry of the Soul' by David Memmot.
Once again, we're on familiar territory -- think 'The Veldt' with
a Mayan spin. But also think: good writing. Good characters. Nice
details. A classic SF feel. A finish to the issue that brought me
back round to the beginning both of the issue and my SF reading.
I was in that world of ideas both new and familiar, a cozy teenage
world of wonder. And yet, I ain't no teenager. I'm a middle-aged
New Yorker-readin' English Major. But I'm also reading digest SF,
and grinning. I'm reading slick UK SF, and smiling.
Bruce Sterling introduce you.
Any doubt that Interzone is going to move away from the
SF feel that I suspect its fans expect should be banished by this
is solid SF, through and through. It might not always break new ground,
in this particular issue, but that's not a problem. I'll mention
in passing that it was universally easy-to-read, no font/background
problems, all that banished. It was just an immersive SF reading
experience. Overall, the quality was pretty consistent. I really
enjoyed the insistent tug of science fiction here. I guess there
was something of a Golden Age emotion running through this issue
for me. I can't say that this was planned -- but that was my experience.
F&SF was not quite as consistent in tone. I never found myself
in a goo-goo-gaa-gaa state as I did reading Interzone. Each story
was more discrete. There was a wider variety, and that worked well.
Still, one clearly can get anything in this magazine. Every issue
is unknown territory, which is both a blessing and a curse.
And finally The New Yorker. Or, The New Yorkers.
Well, lots of damn fine writing in there. Make you feel all grown
up and stuff. And
to be sure, there's lots to be said for growing up. (Or,
at least, pretending to feel that way.) But how many
do I read? How fast can I read?
Locus and The
Fortean Times arrived rather late in the game. But
Locus offers a rare conversation with Michael Chabon himself, and
it's really informative to hear how he shields himself from genre
fiction he feels might be overly influential. In fact, this issue
of Locus looks like it wants to give The New Yorker a run for its
money with not only literati Chabon interviewed, but Karen Joy Fowler
as well. You'll find the usual informative reviews and a look at
the World Fantasy Award winners.
And, ah The Fortean Times. Is there a pleasure as sublime? The gorgeous
cover illustration by Alexander Tomlinson is matched by an equally
loopy story. How can you not subscribe? I mean, "Puppy Sized" spiders
in the Congo? A susbstantial and fascinating article on 'Mussolini's
Mystic' that might be part of an alternate-universe New Yorker? Or
was it in The New Yorker? Damn experiment in magazine reading.
The upshot of it is that more pages get shuffled to the inbox. I
found out I like reading magazines. Still, it's kind of like a vacation.
Eventually, as I slip through the pages of the latest Jon Courtenay
Grimwood novel, I realize while you’re doing it it's fun. But
in the end, it only makes you appreciate home more.