Agony Column Short Fiction Reviews


Ephemeral Pleasures
One Month of Magazine Reading
The Agony Column for Some Damn Date Near the End of 2004
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
Home sweet home...
In 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 novella.

But in genre fiction, the short story still holds a lot power. I subscribe to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Third 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 else said.

Dats youggaly, man.
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 and 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 Yorker, if 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.

Edward Noon rules OK! New Yorker, give him a call!
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 you!

Then I popped over to The New Yorker, where I read 'Minor Magus' by Laura Miller of 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 literary publication.

Beautiful cover, no address label. Cool!
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 minus.

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.

Ole Anthony and friend.
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.

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 with SF writer Ken Macleod 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, the 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. I felt like I was reading genuine, gosh-wow science-damn fiction and enjoying it.

Yikes, somebody shut those guys up.
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 -- well, 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.

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.

A very special issue.
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.

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. I 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.

Let Bruce Sterling introduce you.
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.

Any doubt that Interzone is going to move away from the SF feel that I suspect its fans expect should be banished by this issue. 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?

A literary Locus.
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.