Wednesday, April 19, 2023

2023 read #39: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2023.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2023 issue (144:3-4)
Edited by Sheree Renée Thomas
258 pages
Published 2023
Read from April 18 to April 19
Rating: 4 out of 5

I haven't read an issue of F&SF while it was still current since the January / February 2019 issue. However, I want to turn that around. I want to keep up with the issues as they come out. And what better time to start than with this issue, which features my own F&SF publication debut?

F&SF has been at the top of my list of dream publications since I was a teenager in the late 1990s. After over two decades of rejections, one of my stories was selected for this issue, and here it is, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Peter S. Beagle, Lavie Tidhar, and Marie Vibbert. "Overwhelmed" is an understatement. I have feelings of unworthiness, of impostor syndrome, which help explain why I've avoided actually reading this issue for the last month and a half.

Unrelated fun fact: this happens to be the 600th read I've done since I began this blog at the start of 2013. Yay reading!

“The Sweet in the Empty” by Tade Thompson. An enthralling mix of historical fiction and lingering magic set in fifth century Arabia. Thompson makes the work of establishing setting, character, and history seem effortless, immersing us immediately in a lived-in world. Middle-aged Axumite knight Jember jumps off the page, so worn-in and comfortable in Thompson's narrative voice that he feels like the hero of a '70s low-magic serial, familiar from countless iconic adventures, but with a depth to him all such heroes lacked. A stunning and moving story.

“The Station Master” by Lavie Tidhar. On a partly-terraformed Mars of dusty dome towns, icy comets, sentient trains, and a religious order whose adherents modify their bodies in ways that recall the never-were glories of Barsoom, the manager of Yaniv Town’s little train station meets and converses with various people and a robot. Another marvelous document of efficient worldbuilding, full of crisp character sketches and delightful details. Slight but utterly winsome.

“Spookman” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth. Ghosts drift through the woods and mires of post-apocalyptic far-future Belgium, under the light of the sundered halves of the moon. Spookman Rood Farook helps guide the ghosts to their choice of wrath or rest. An avaricious lord hires Rood for a most unusual job: to locate and return his living boy. This is another banger of a story, mixing Dying Earth with dreamlike fairy tale deep dark woods vibes — two flavors I never knew I needed mingled until now. Woodlings, painted wolves, wild failed prophets all inhabit an intoxicating phantasmagoria. Outstanding.

“The Weremouse of Millicent Bradley Middle School” by Peter S. Beagle. A solid, enjoyable tale with an all-time-great title. Our narrator Graham’s sister Lucia is a math prodigy and someone with real principles. When their shared math teacher (who happens to be a witch) picks on another student, Lucia calls her out — only to be cursed with the mousy equivalent of lycanthropy (musanthropy?) for her effrontery. Excellent as it is, this story feels like vintage 1990s short fantasy. That isn’t a put-down — there were plenty of amazing short fantasy stories in that era, and this one would have numbered among the best — but I can’t help but feel that this could have come from that decade, except for one or two token mentions of texting and going “viral.” Beagle’s middle schoolers feel closer to the bygone Millennial l’esprit du temps than to Gen Alpha’s current vibe, and the vaguely arcane homeless folks who help Graham plant this firmly in the ’90s tradition. (Look, I know Wizard of the Pigeons was published in 1986, but shush.)

“Piggyback Girl” by M. H. Ayinde. This, by contrast, feels like a thoroughly ’00s near-future sci-fi piece. Amber Phoenix, an influencer on the fading end of her career, receives an implant that allows her followers to experience her personal sensory reality. I’ll be honest, I was fully prepared to not really care for this story, because this “ripped from tomorrow’s headlines” subgenre isn’t usually my thing. But Ayinde surprised me. “Piggyback” is well-written, with creative and sharply observed details of fan chats, horrifying invasions, fetishistic demands. The second-person narration is an inspired choice that works perfectly with the needs of the story.

“Mnemonic Longings” by Marlon Ortiz. Millennia after a devastatingly Pyrrhic war against alien invaders, after Earth was destroyed and the rest of humanity annihilated, the last sentient AI ship comes back online, and reconstitutes the last human clone soldier. A solid story of finding purpose, companionship, and meaning after everything, of mortality and clinging on, and of discovering acceptance. Plus there’s a cozy cabin in a verdant habitat dome beneath the surface of Venus, which is always a top-notch touch. Good stuff.

“Moonlight, Wing-Wake in Fog” by… me. This story is my F&SF debut. I went back and forth about whether I wanted to reread it here — I last read it when going over the magazine proofs, and normally I can’t stand to reread my words more than necessary — but at last I decided I wanted to see how it held up against the brilliance of this issue. While it might be slight as stories go, perhaps lacking the emotional heft of “The Sweet in the Empty,” nonetheless… I don’t hate it?? I still can’t believe it’s really in the pages of my lifelong dream publication, but maybe it isn’t a fluke? Maybe it’s okay?? Also, speaking as a reader who always reads magazines and anthologies in order, as the editor intended, I love how this was positioned in the issue.

“The Madding” by Nuzo Onoh. Sumptuous with description and detail, heavy with tragic inevitability, this is a gorgeous and sharp-toothed tale of witches, a greedy man, and a cursed hamlet. Vivid and horrific.

“Mr. Catt” by Eleanor Arnason. A charming tale in which one Mr. Catt, a six foot tall talking cat with a trust fund, pursues his whim to buy a dragon — just a small one, thank you, and it’s fine if it doesn’t breathe fire. Along the way he inadvertently earns the ire of some cartoony toughs called the Cheese Boys. A lighthearted and breezy throwback to middle-grade fantasy of the ’70s and ’80s (which I mean here in a complimentary way).

“Escape Velocity” by Amanda Dier. Efficient character sketch of a would-be ship’s commander who, when a degenerative disease threatens to leave her grounded Earthside, elects instead to become the disembodied brain of the ship’s computer. Slight but not without its charms.

“Pantoum on a Generation Ship” by Lauren Bajek. I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since the table of contents for this issue was released back in February. I love pantoums, and I’m in awe of the very idea of converting the poetry form into prose. This piece doesn’t disappoint. Bajek wields the pantoum’s repetition with power and surety, spinning a deep and impactful story within a bewilderingly small space. Despite the brilliance of the stories earlier in this issue, this might be my favorite piece so far — an all-time classic. If this doesn’t win some kind of award, there is no justice in sci-fi.

Here I want to single out “One generation after the last flower” by Marisca Pichette as a stunning, moving poem, possibly the best poem in this issue.

“The Subway Algorithm Is Half-Constructed” by Marie Vibbert. I was initially skeptical of this story — nothing sounds duller to me in our AI-choked Wild West of 2023 than a story about grad students programming machine-learning bots — but Vibbert is an exceptional author, and this little tale surprised me by being a fragile, sweet exploration of social anxiety, queer friendship, and betrayal.

“Solar Boy” by K. C. Ahia. Another immersive tale with a rich, lived-in setting, this time a class-conscious story of deckhands and engineers on a solar-sail ship. It reads like if you took a 1960s “solving space problems with chemistry and math” story and made it queer and proletarian. I love it!

“Ouroboros” by Mathew Lebowitz. This story feels like a throwback to the Ferman era of F&SF — a late 1980s-flavored mishmash of virtual reality headsets, hallucinogenic serums, heterosexuality, and genius inventors so constrained by the demands of society that they must run off to Belize to do their solitary genius work. Naturally, our genius inventor has figured out how to “nudge” reality, so of course the “self-generated virtual reality” of the headset is something more, something ever so cosmic and multiversal — or is it?? This subgenre hasn’t been my cup of tea since I was a teenager in the midst of my inevitable many-worlds fixation; this particular story never won me over. Oh well!

“The Five Lazy Sisters” by Kathleen Jennings. I’d just been thinking about how SF-heavy this issue of F&SF has been. This is a beguilingly original fairy tale of five sisters who, despite their lazy reputations, will go to great lengths to build a bridge so they don’t have to take over from their aging grandmother as ferrywomen. Jennings perfectly captures the rhythms of myth-making and the strange deep woods. Delightful, and not least because of all the creative geological insults the sisters employ against a particular stone.

“Remembered Salt” by E. Catherine Tobler. A witch’s house comes to consciousness after the departure of her witch. Alone, she empties her contents, crosses prairies, mountains, and forests on her chicken-legged way toward the salt scent of the sea. A marvelous end to a marvelous issue.

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