Many years ago, I cornered John Kessel at a fantasy conference just because I wanted to be able to say that I’d had a conversation with a writer and scholar I admired. Unfortunately for poor Kessel, I ran out of things to say to him right after, “I love your work!” I still have a reverence for writers that renders me tongue-tied in no time at all. Don’t they seem like the most magical beings, writers? People who can come up with all that weird stuff right out of their heads?
Anyway, Kessel took pity on me and started talking about how much he loves short fiction. He named authors and stories and magazines, filling my brain with notebooks full of mental jottings. Once I got home, I immediately started pulling out my back issues of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, subscribing to Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and looking for online gems like Clarkesworld.
And all this time since I’ve been reading short fiction, and coming to the conclusion that novellas, novelets, and short stories are really where it’s happening. Can I persuade you the way Kessel persuaded me? I’m going to give it a shot as we discuss this topic in my new regular column, Magazine Monday, which will post regularly on, you guessed it, Mondays.
Unfortunately, my starting point isn’t the best way of making my case, because the November/December 2010 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is surprisingly flabby. I’ve long counted F&SF as my favorite among the digest-sized genre magazines, and have rarely been disappointed by an issue, but this one showed scant evidence to support my thesis about short fiction. Still, there were a couple of gems.
The best story in the issue is “Crumbs” by Michaela Roessner. This beautiful bit of writing is an updated fairy tale immediately recognized as “Hansel and Gretel” for an urban age. Roesnner’s writing about gingerbread houses shows the immense amount of research she did to give this story its veracity. Witches who have new identities prepared for after they consummate their crimes are witches for whom one must have a grudging respect. This is a fine tale indeed.
Second best by only a small margin is the novelet “Death Must Die” by Albert E. Cowdrey. I’m not usually a fan of funny science fiction or fantasy, but this was a clever bit of work: the tale of a psychic investigator called upon to rid a house of the ghost of a hangman. The story is framed as an entry in the Journal of Psychical Research, a nice conceit especially in light of the fact that a paper about ESP appears in the current of issue of the real world’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The cover story, on the other hand, the novella “Dead Man’s Run” by Robert Reed, was a dead bore. The motif of long distance running that permeates the story of the murder of a particular runner seems entirely artificial and unnecessary to the plot – and it’s not at all interesting to a non-runner. While I like the notion of being able to speak with the “back-up” of someone who has died, especially to try to solve his murder, the execution of this story leaves much to be desired.
It seems ghosts were intended as the theme for this issue, as Alexander Jablokov’s opening story, “Plinth Without Figure,” also features one. Jablokov has hold of a good idea in this novelet: the architecture of the future, a way of molding an environment to encourage comfort in ways both seen and unseen. I wish there were more about this in the story and less about the protagonist’s relationship with a former girlfriend.
Jerry Oltion’s very short story about a hoarder facing the idea of immortality is a good little joke. Alan Dean Foster’s western ghost story, “Free Elections: A Mad Amos Malone Story,” is a fairly traditional tall tale. Bruce Sterling’s “The Exterminator’s Want Ad” is a slight piece about prisons of the future and life after release. Richard Bowes’s “Venues” is an insider tale for those who write science fiction and fantasy and those who hang around with those that do; taken on that level, it’s rather amusing, but I suspect it would be almost indecipherable for anyone who just reads the stuff and avoids the social aspect of being an SF reader. “Ware of the Worlds” by Michael Alexander is a first contact story about Earth’s encounter with some really very sweet aliens – and the danger of such friendliness. I expected more from John Kessel’s “The Closet” than I got out of this very short story about a seemingly typical young man. Alexandra Duncan’s “Swamp City Lament” is a novelet about a future in which few women are fertile, and what that means for their children.
My January/February 2011 issue of F&SF hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m hoping for something better in that issue than I got in this one…