SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 6 (September 1993)

I was recently talking about Shakespeare with some friends, and on the same day, opened this latest issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE to read Scott Edleman’s editorial, “Science Fiction is the stuff that dream are made on”, which deals, of course, with Shakespeare. It was a good start to the final issue of SF AGE’s rookie year–and one story in this issue would turn out to be a Nebula-winner.

“Reversals” by Gregory Feeley

Every now and then, I run into a story that is a brick wall for me. The story can be finely constructed, it can have moving characters and big ideas. But for some reason, I just can’t get into it. “Reversals” was one of those stories for me. I must admit from the outset that this should be taken as a failure on my part as a reader, and not as a criticism of the writer. I got a few columns into the story and just couldn’t go any more. I can’t even put my finger on why, which is yet another failure on my part. Needless to say, I will try and get back to this story at some point, but with 46 issues of a magazine to get through, I can’t get too bogged down on any one story.

“A Defense of Social Contracts” by Martha Soukup

A perfect example of a story that I didn’t “get” the first time I read it, but that I really enjoyed on this, my second reading, is Martha Soukup’s “A Defense of Social Contracts”. I first read the story when the issue first came out, back in September 1993 and it was over my head at the time. Of course, that was also before I’d read much in the field, and before I’d read any of the gender fiction by writers like Ursula K. LeGuin or James Tiptree, Jr., or Joanna Russ. Fourteen years later, and with a much more vast and varied background in science fiction, I found myself really enjoying the story.

This story ultimately won the 1994 Nebula Award for Best Short Story and having re-read it, I can understand why.

Short stories–and in particular, science fiction shorts–are at their best when they are set in a believable, self-consistent world. That world may be a moon that circles a planet, that orbits a binary star system. Or it might be one in which contracts for sexual relationships are well-established by law and no one questions them. What makes such a story fascinating is to watch the characters operate within such a framework. How do the react? How do they deal with their situation? This story is a great example of the melding of the two.

The idea of relationship “contracts” is not a new one in science fiction, even back in 1993. In fact, when I was reading this story, I was reminded of Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside and the way people related to one another in that novel of the early 1970s. What makes this story special is that we get to witness the point at which the framework breaks down. In this respect, it is similar to James Morrow’s City of Truth where no one ever even thinks about telling a lie any more because truth has been engineered into the society. In “A Defense of Social Contracts” we are witness to Anli’s “breaking” of the social contract and the affects that has on her and the people around her. We are taken on a sad and painful journey in world that is unfamiliar to us–and yet one that is very familiar to us. We find ourselves empathizing with Anli and wanting love to mean something. We also find ourselves empathizing with Derren and the confusion and uncertainty he feels about what is going on around him.

And unlike both City of Truth and The World Inside, all of this is accomplished in a short story.

It’s also nice to see that within the first year of it’s existence, SCIENCE FICTION AGE published a story that won a Nebula, helping to cement it’s place as a leading magazine in the field, no matter long it lasted.

“Up the Lazy River” by Paul Di Filippo

Sometimes, the way a story is written can make you like something that ordinarily isn’t your style. That was the case with “Up the Lazy River”. It’s the story of a robot who helps to make sure that the rivers of earth are running smoothly. It’s an ecology story, but a clever one. I loved the idea that the rivers themselves can achieve a level of sentience.

But the thing that really made this story fun was the language. Check this out:

Transferring his Synergen-grown craft to kibe autopilot (a simple TL Four), Dos Santos resolved to abandon sentimentalism for work. Prompting his higher centers into microsleep, he freed up paraneurons to run deep plectic simulations of the River’s failure.

You don’t know what it means at first, and yet though the terminology is never explained to you, you begin to get the drift. It has a William Gibson feel to it, and I am envious of this style of writing because it is a style that I have simply never been able to do.

It makes for a unique voice in a kind of post-Lorax utopian world.

“Orphan’s Choice” by John Morressy

I think it’s really cool when you read a story and get so into it that you forget that you are reading. What’s even better is when you are reading a story on a subject of which you are not a big fan and you still forget you are reading. That is what happened to me with John Morressy’s story “Orphan’s Choice”.

First, it is the fantasy story for this issue, and by now you know that I prefer science fiction over fantasy. Second, it’s a “high fantasy” story and by now know that if I do read fantasy, I prefer contemporary fantasy to “high fantasy”. And yet despite these two strikes, I enjoyed the story! It hooked me and kept me reading straight through to the end, with barely room to take a breath.

Partly this was because the story did not try and do too much. It was a straight-forward fantasy about an apprentice, coming into his own in his master’s eyes. It was also a story about a boy becoming a man, and about a man becoming a hero. The voice of the story (it was told from the point of view of the apprentice, first person) was clear and honest. It was refreshing. It even ended the way I hoped it would end (no, I won’t give it away here), but that is not always the case. Stories often end dramatically in such a way as to leave the reader unsatisfied, but I came away from this tale with a bit more appreciation for fantasy and a good deal more appreciation for straight-forward, honest story-telling.

So I guess you could say that I was satisfied.

“Winter of Love” by Greg Costikyan

If you assume that everything comes in cycles, then it is inevitable that another “Winter of Love” will fall upon us at some point in the future and it will be like the 1960s all over again. And this tale by Greg Costikyan is the story of that next winter.

Of all of the stories in this batch, I found this one to be the strangest. It didn’t feel like science fiction and yet it didn’t feel like fantasy, either. It felt more like something you’d find in a Bret Easton Ellis short story, if you transferred the setting of the story from the 1980s to a future hippie era.

It’s a story about families, about people who love life, and who respect death. I was a little perplexed by the ending of the story, a kind of ironic twist on sailing off into the sunset. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable for the strangeness that it brought to the issue–what was perhaps the most alien story of all, yet in some ways very familiar.

“In the Dark” by William Shunn (a.k.a. shunn)

As I have mentioned, when I was originally getting these magazines, 14 years ago, I wasn’t reading through them. I’d read an occasional story, but that’s it. (It’s also part of what is making this journey so much fun!) So when I got the September 1993 issue, I did not read Bill Shunn’s story “In the Dark”. In fact, the first time I’d ever read a story by (or ever heard of ) Bill Shunn was in the next issue of the magazine (of which I will discuss next time around). In that issue, I became an instant Shunn fan, but I never went back through the previous issues and so when I read “In the Dark”, it was fun in part because I knew going into it that I would like it.

(As an aside here, there are some stories that I am certain I will like based on reputation alone. I realize that this is kind of like judging a book by its cover. But each of us knows best what we like and I think it is a fair judgment. And besides, I have never been wrong so far.)

“In the Dark” is a clever story because it is told with us as the reader feeling like we are in the dark. There are no visual descriptions of surroundings. We “feel around” and we “listen” to get an understanding of our setting. I found this exceedingly clever. (In some ways, it reminded me of the opening scene in Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant Volume III, only “In the Dark” was more clever.)

And then there are the characters, Ishmael and Colin, who we never see, who are never described to us. We know that Ishmael is a prisoner (or we assume he is) and that Colin is the jailer. But we never learn the circumstances surrounding Ishmael’s incarceration. These two men act as friends and yet torment one another. They are the entire world and you honestly begin to believe that the prison is the world and that nothing exists on the outside.

The story is told through footsteps and dripping water and the cracking of bones on stone. It is a story told through sound and I loved the idea of attempting that as a writer because writing is so often a visual medium. As the reader you are trying to imagine what you see. But in this story, all you imagine is the blackness of the prison, and what you hear going on between these two men.

Bill Shunn has several other stories spread out through the pages of SCIENCE FICTION AGE. While this one is not my favorite Shunn story, I was pleasantly surprised by it and at the same time, chagrined that I didn’t read it 14 years ago when it first came out.

“The Canals of Mars” by Don Webb

Deals with the Devil stories always end up the same way. We want to believe that Our Hero is going to somehow outwit the Devil, but of course, they never do. Even so, what I liked about Don Webb’s story was that it was more of a science fictional approach than a fantasy approach at the deal with the devil story. In fact, one might argue, upon a careful reading, that it was entirely science fiction and that Our Hero is merely insane.

A second element of this story that appealed to me was it’s scope. I really enjoy short stories that span long stretches of time. Whether it be a life time, or longer (as in Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”) there is something about telling a story that spans a long period of time in the shortest possible space. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that such a story is inevitably fast-paced

Miscellaneous Thoughts

The letter column in this issue contained letters by pros only, no fan letters (unless of course, you consider that pros can also be fans).

I enjoyed the Gallery column as well, where Anne McCaffrey interviewed Michael Whelan and talks about his art.

And Hal Clement’s essay on what happened to the science in science fiction was terrific. It makes me remember guiltily, that I have read far too little by Hal Clement.

This completes my thoughts on the first year’s worth of SCIENCE FICTION AGE magazines. But I can’t just end the first year without saying a few words about my favorite stories in the first year. The May 1994 issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE (Volume 2, Issue 4)–which I will get to in the next couple of weeks–has a listing of readers top 10 favorite stories from the first year of the magazine. I figured I’d list my picks, and then list what readers picked. Those who want to draw comparisons and conclusions may due so.

My top 10 stories from the first year are (in order):

  1. “Afterwar” by Rick Shelley
  2. “The Last Robot” by Adam-Troy Castro
  3. “Andante Lugubre” by Barry Malzberg
  4. “Another Country” by Kim Antieau
  5. “Always Falling Apart” by Tony Daniel
  6. “A Defense of Social Contracts” by Martha Soukup
  7. “A Tale from the War” by Don Webb
  8. “Somatoys” by Ray Aldridge
  9. “The Fifteenth Station of the Cross” by Charles Sheffield
  10. “The Frog Wizard” by Lawrence Watt-Evans

And here is what the readers picked:

  1. “The Last Robot” by Adam-Troy Castro
  2. “The Dragon-Slayer’s Sword” by Resa Nelson
  3. “The Cost of Styxite”
  4. “The Frog Wizard” by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  5. “The Kingdom Come” by Ben Bova
  6. “Always Falling Apart” by Tony Daniel
  7. “Puss in Boots”
  8. “A Tale From the War” by Don Webb
  9. “A Family of the Post-Apocalypse” by Thomas M. Disch
  10. “Undercover” by Gene O’Neill

It looks as though we had only 4 stories in common on our “best of” list. But that is part of what makes science fiction so fun and so appealing: great differences of opinion. (Notice that the readers did not pick what became a Nebula award-winning story as one of their favorites? It was on my list, but of course, I have hindsight…)

I am already well into Volume 2, Issue 1 which features stories by Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, and Daniel Hood. Stay tuned.