The novella is the ideal length for a science fiction story. It’s long enough to allow a reader to become immersed in a scene and involved with the characters; and it’s short enough to allow a reader to suspend disbelief as to the more unscientific or strange aspects of a story without questioning them too closely. Kate Wilhelm’s “The Fullness of Time,” which forms the backbone of the July/August issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, is a fine illustration of the strengths of the novella form.
“The Fullness of Time” is about a documentary film maker, Cat, who hires a researcher, Mercedes, the first person narrator of the tale, to work on a project about Hiram Granville, a famous inventor, now dead, about whom little is known. Hiram had a way of getting to the patent office just before another inventor of the same device got there. In fact, it was pretty remarkable that he managed to do this, because he didn’t have an engineering or science education. He started inventing things as a kid and didn’t stop until he was in his eighties, churning out one invention after another — and all despite a seizure disorder, possibly epilepsy. He had four children, one of whom is as brilliant at finance as his father was at inventions. His three daughters haven’t fared as well; one died as a teen, perhaps from the same seizure disorder that afflicted her father and one committed suicide at age 14. Shirley survived, but not happily. She gave birth to three children, all of whom seem to have the same family ailment. Her ex-husband is a sloppy drunk who is the first interview for the documentary. This interview suggests that the family is even stranger than the lack of information about them suggests.
When the team gets to the Granville Museum for more filming, Cary, one of Shirley’s children, essentially hijacks Mercedes, though it’s quickly apparent that he has attempted to free himself from his weird and controlling family, and especially from his cousin, Lorraine. Cary tells Mercedes about the family illness — it’s not epilepsy, and it’s not narcolepsy, but it’s a bit like both of them. What happens is that the afflicted individual loses consciousness without warning for a period of time (the time varies depending on the individual). While unconscious, he or she travels a certain distance into the future — always the same period. For Cary it’s four days for two and a half hours, not enough to give him the sort of foresight that allows his uncle (18 months) and grandfather (five years) to appear prescient with their “work.” Lorraine, who has been educated as a neuropsychiatrist, is planning to breed more people with the family “gift,” using Cary’s sisters, and Cary, as guinea pigs. Hiram’s granddaughters are “raving maniacs,” according to Cary, but they have ova that can be harvested, and Lori is definitely after his sperm.
The story becomes as much one of rescue as discovery when the documentary team learns this news. It’s a fascinating premise, but the story doesn’t fulfill the potential of the intriguing idea of going to sleep and waking up two years in the future, then falling asleep in that future and winding up back in the past. How cool would that be? Wouldn’t there be some way to use this ability without going mad as a hatter? Isn’t there an enormous amount of good that could be done with knowledge of the future, used for purposes other than the mere accumulation of wealth? The story leaves me with as many questions as answers.
Still, most of the other stories in this issue pale in comparison to the sure hand of Kate Wilhelm. One that shines is Rachel Pollack’s “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls.” Jack is a gambler, known variously as Jack Shade, Jack Spade, Jack Gamble or Jack Dream, who lives in a hotel named the Hôtel de Rêve Noire in New York. But he is also a sort of paladin, with an obligation to assist anyone who comes to him bearing his card. William Barlow comes to him one day with a tale of a dead wife who is resting uneasily, her soul trapped in the Forest of Souls, and Jack undertakes to release her — and incidentally, to free Barlow from being haunted by her. It’s a dark, strange, sad tale, made all the more so when we learn Jack’s own story. I find myself eager to read Pollack’s other work in light of this excellent novelette.
Matthew Hughes finds ever more to write about on his Penultimate Earth; I’m a particular fan of his Guth Bandar stories about the science of the collective unconscious. In “Wearaway and Flambeau,” Hughes serves up a new character who is at least as much fun as any of his other creations: Raffalon the thief. Raffalon may be good at his profession in general, but he walks right into a trap at the beginning of this tale, and the wizard who catches him has a horrible punishment in mind. The punishment backfires, though, transporting Raffalon to a formless, featureless void from which he can see any place and go there by an act of will. This void provides Raffalon with some good ideas about career advancement, and with the help of another wizard he manages thefts that are beyond the wizard’s dreams of avarice. Unfortunately, the victims aren’t as taken with Raffalon’s brilliance as he is. How does Raffalon get out of the fix he finds himself in? Oh, he’s a clever one, all right.
“Harmut’s World” by Albert E. Cowdrey is another comic tale in this issue. It’s the story of a couple of detectives of the paranormal who are called in to investigate the mysterious disappearances of livestock, a truck, and the daughter of their employer from an erstwhile ski resort. The ski resort features a castle moved brick-by-brick from Vienna. It looks like the castle might be haunted, thus leading to the disappearance of whatever falls into its reality. Jimmy and Morrie need to figure it out lest Sam Ciaccio — their employer — be forced to load them down with scrap and throw them into the Great Salt Lake. It’s a typical Cowdrey story, light and silly.
Matthew Johnson’s debut story for F&SF is “The Afflicted,” a zombie story that manages to be a touch original, likening zombies to those suffering from senile dementia (the first sign that one is starting to turn in his world is an inability to think straight). One becomes a zombie only gradually in this world, just as Alzheimer’s patients tend to fade away slowly. The parallel makes this story more painful than the usual zombie story, in which zombies are nothing but cannon fodder; here, they are people first.
Ken Liu has been turning out one good story after another over the last couple of years, and “Real Faces” is another in that string of successes. This tale of a world where job applicants wear computerized masks that hide their race, gender, ethnicity and any other possible grounds for discrimination reminds me strongly of Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” which makes people not see beauty or ugliness, thereby getting to know individuals as individuals. Liu’s point is sharper, though, as his point of view is that one’s ethnicity (etc.), in part, makes one who she is. With only a partial resume to review, one that is carefully edited to eliminate any involvement with one’s gender, race, or other “suspect category,” how can anyone get a full picture of the individual? How can you fully quiz an interviewee about his or her chairmanship of a club unless you know what that club is? If it’s a black students’ political action group, for instance, doesn’t that tell you something about the interviewee beyond the mere fact that she’s black? As a lawyer myself, I was also taken with Liu’s apparent deep knowledge of how race and gender play out in the legal world.
I was enthralled by Eleanor Arnason’s story, “The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times: A Hwarhath Folk Tale.” It takes an exceptional imagination to create a folk story for an imaginary society. In this story, Arnason’s heroine seems to be a clever sort who outwits Death himself, though Death is not all that clever himself. The heroine isn’t the same sort of admirable person one finds in human tales, as Arnason points out in the footnotes — a nice touch to differentiate this tale from the typical folktale.
Michaele Jordan’s “Wizard” is about a girl who is ensnared by a wizard without his willing it. He reluctantly takes her under his wing, warning her that she does not really want to be involved with someone as unkind and unconcerned as he. It turns out that his warning was not just an effort to rid himself of a 14-year-old child, but genuine. The girl learns without really understanding that she’s learning. Her knowledge comes in handy when she finds herself in the real world again — and it appears that she is a true sorcerer’s apprentice.
One of my favorite writers, Jeffrey Ford, has the final story in this issue: “A Natural History of Autumn.” Riku and Michi are driving south from Numazu, along the coast of the Izu Peninsula, on a blue autumn day. Riku is a high-class prostitute and Michi is an up-and-coming executive who has been loaned the use of his employer’s farmhouse in the country. The farmhouse is a mysterious and spooky place, though, and soon the protagonists find themselves in a frightening situation. Ford manages to capture an entire culture in a 15-page story with a last line that’s a killer.
There are book reviews by Charles de Lint and Michelle West and film reviews by Lucius Shepard. I greatly enjoyed the science article by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty entitled “Quicksand and Ketchup” — basically about the difference between fluids and liquids, which I’d always thought were the same thing. They’re not.
At 258 pages, this magazine gives great value for the money. I always enjoy F&SF.