The best story in this issue is Naomi Kritzer’s “High Stakes,” a novelette that is a sequel to “Liberty’s Daughter” from the May/June 2012 issue (about which I said that I hoped there would be sequels). The setting for the story is a fictional, near future group of platforms and decommissioned cruise ships and other floating flat places in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that serve as home for several groups who found existing governments distasteful. The narrator, Rebecca, is a high-schooler whose father has a position of importance, though we never learn exactly what it is. We do know that he is highly invested in keeping things as they are on the seasteads, and that includes bonded labor — indentured servants, basically — to do all the scut work for little money and no benefits. Rebecca’s father hopes that by getting her a job as part of a reality show in which some of these laborers compete, he’ll have eyes and ears on the set to let him know if there is any sign of trouble, which he plainly defines as union activity or the like. But Rebecca has a mind of her own, and she uses it. It’s a well-plotted political story that has added significance in the light of current events in places like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Another very good story in this issue is “If the Stars Reverse Their Courses, If the Rivers Run Back from the Sea” by Alter S. Reiss. It’s a tale of war and time travel, focusing on a duel between two old enemies at the beginning of their careers. “There had to be a war so that I could get a mansion,” says one of the characters, giving shape to the entire story in a handful of words. It’s Reiss’s debut in F&SF, but I’m looking forward to more from his pen.
I did not care for Alan Dean Foster’s “Claim Blame,” a new story in his series about Mad Amos Malone, a mountain man with a mountainous build, a Paul Bunyan for the 21st century. This time he’s attempting to resolve a dispute between a tribe of gnomes and a couple of men who have staked a claim to their mountain. His use of leprechauns as warriors against the gnomes makes for more complications for the stakeholders. It’s plain that this is supposed to be funny, but it misses.
Robert Reed’s “Katabasis” is an intriguing novella about a high gravity environment that serves as a sort of hardship experience for those seeking an experience they cannot obtain elsewhere. Although the environment is beautiful, it is extremely wearing on the average body. Those born on massive worlds and therefore built to endure high gravity act as porters for the more fragile who choose to make the trek across this land. Fortunately, permanent death is not a likely outcome; sentient beings have become immortal for all intents and purposes, and while their brains may have to be ported out, they can be reconstituted when their party reaches the end of its journey. It’s one of those science fiction stories that gives you a sense of wonder more than telling a tale, but it serves its purpose admirably.
Lewis Shiner offers a very short story in “Application.” When you submit a resume electronically, hoping against hope for a job, you don’t expect your last computer — the one you traded in for an upgraded model — to start talking to you in response. That computer apparently found employment before you did! You’d better hope you were good to that machine, because otherwise…. Shiner explains.
There seems to be an infinite variety of vampires in our fiction these days, and Steven Popkes introduces us to a new one in his short story, “Breathe.” His narrator is a vampire with a conscience, which makes vampirism considerably more difficult. It’s a good story, a nice turn on old legends.
Albert E. Cowdrey has a new story about Paranormal Services and its owners, Morrie and Jimmy. This time they’re asked to help out a Bonaparte, Mississippi, bed and breakfast that has a haunted bedroom. The owners are losing out on$200 a night in revenue, and they can’t afford it, even in their genteel southern way. The story is a great take on racism and its vestiges — or lack thereof (you decide) in the Deep South. Cowdrey tends to write as if he’s reaching for humor but hitting simply sentimental, and that’s all right with me.
“Waiting for a Me Like You” by Chris Willrich is about a universe in which travel between universes is rather easily accomplished, assuming you can handle the extreme nausea caused by a trip through the Flipgate. Bob Mendez, the narrator of the story, is a multiparallel public relations wiz who has passed through one particular universe at least three times previously, and there’s a particular and unusual need for his bland face this time around. It’s a fine portrait of a man pushed to an extremity, and what he does with the push.
I usually enjoy Ron Goulart’s work, but his new novelette, “The Problem of the Elusive Cracksman,” missed the mark for me. It’s tough to meld a mystery with science fiction, no doubt, and this tale of stolen diamonds, a gorilla and an astounding elixir, all coming together in a foggy London in yesteryear, demonstrate just how tough it is.
The final novelette in the issue, “Heaventide” by KJ Kabza, takes an interesting approach to gender and sexuality. Whether you’re a male or female in Lionfjord depends on your behavior, not your genitalia, and certain behavior prescribes the course of your life, whether it’s what you want or not. One person and her spouse defy the rules, and pay the price.
Charles de Lint’s Books to Look For column was more useful than usual, and Elizabeth Hand’s book reviews are up to her usual excellent standard. Kathi Maio’s column about apocalyptic films has a good deal more to talk about than you might have thought, and she offers good analysis of films such as “2012,” “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” Gordon Van Gelder’s editorial will make you long for the days of the Apollo missions. It’s a solid issue, if not a sterling one; it should leave you looking forward to the next.