Tangent Reviews

Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1997

from Tangent #20, Fall 1997/Winter 1998

Bless St. Anthony of Boucher, Catholic and catholic, practitioner and praiser of mystery in mainstream, science in fiction. Conceived in diversity, dedicated to the proposition that mental blinkers are unbecoming to the civilized human, the venerable F&SF, has included in its ranks Truman Capote and John Updike, P. G. Wodehouse and Ogden Nash, both C. Day and C. S. Lewis. Even as it nears its 50th year, F&SF, at least the idealized F&SF of my memory, remains the foremost defender within these ghetto walls of the notion that good readers devour good writing and good writing transcends all.

With thesis meeting antithesis within the pages of Tangent as genre mugs mainstream and mainstream guts genre, why not open an issue of F&SF to see if that ol' devil synthesis still lives?

Where to start? At the extremes, of course. Ben Jeapes' short story "Pages Out of Order" vs. John Morressy's novelette "Rimrunner's Home."

"Pages" begins as a mainstream horror story, horror simply because it is set in the confines of that secular hell, the English "public" (i.e. private) school. As such stories always do, this one features the despised misfit who manages to overcome the omnipresent repression manifested as hazing that passes for schooling in those environs. Any experienced reader will soon discern that something genre is going on, if subtly and between the lines, but only the ending explicitly makes the piece unsuitable for inclusion in England's version of The New Yorker.

"Home" is pure genre all the way through, featuring despised misfits who manage to overcome the conformity of home by prowling the outer reaches of the solar system, looking to send back warnings of asteroids on Earth-collision orbits. Sunk in stasis for all but a few hours of their half-light speed voyages, rimrunners always return to strange Earths on which unfathomable years have passed, leaving them more alienated than when they left.

Jeapes may have sold only a few short stories, but he already possesses the suppleness of the mainstream writer, able to immerse us in the lives and minds of his creations in just a few pages. Morressy is a grizzled veteran who first appeared in F&SF in 1971, but he appears incapable of creating a single visualizable setting or a believable bit of human interaction. He tries to make the story revolve around the ungratefulness of the stay-at-home for those who go out and do the dirty work of keeping them safe. There's a real issue here, but Morressy's only comparison is to Vietnam era soldiers. I found the equation of misfits who eagerly volunteer to pursue "enormous" wealth by a voyage that is never depicted as risky with the moral quagmire that was Nam to be flatly repugnant.

Yet Jeapes' story also never quite satisfies. It fails to recognize, let alone come to grips with, the paradoxes that its sfnal gimmick engenders. More to the point, the story is a rote treatment of its theme, not to be compared to the looking back in hatred found in other public school pillorying, say, Stephen Fry's comic novel, The Hippopotamus.

Who do I root for in this battle? Neither side directly, but the mainstream by implication. Morressy could never write "Pages," but it would be interesting to see if Jeapes can tackle something like "Home" and complete the synthesis. He would be well worth watching if he tries, even if he fails.

Quickly to the other, and, except for one, lesser, stories. Ben Bova, who should know better, gives us "The Cafe Coup," a short story about a time traveler who tries to avert his horror of a world by preventing the sinking of the Lusitania, keeping the U.S. from defeating the Germans in World War I and thus insuring that Hitler and World War II never occur. Bova doesn't miss a single cliche on the way to the ending, which, honest to Pete, has the protagonist literally sitting with his head in his arms suffering under the realization that it is all going to happen anyhow. Unbelievable.

Many people think that Esther Friesner is a delightful humorist. Many people have nominated her breezy and zany confections for awards. And many people will think that her novelette, "True Believer," in which a weird prescription medicine gives a boy the ability to make his beliefs come true, is one of her best, with puns and wry side comments on humanity punctuating a sitcom sensibility. (I have never been any of these people, truth be told, but I understand why they exist.)

"The Seventh Chapter" has magic and the kind of storybook milieu that accompanies it. But the heart of Harry Turtledove's short story is a bit of wordplay that could belong to any genre or none at all. Expertly done, it is a confection without conviction.

David Bunch proffers a three-page David Bunch, one of his unique and trademark non- stories. It is called "A Saint George Pens a Note to His Dragons." If you are among the select cult of Bunchists, you will not want to miss this rare sighting.

Nina Kiriki Hoffmann writes of another of her almost-trademark hurt children in "The World Within," a short story about a repressed misfit complete with poltergeist. The story almost works and would, if the metaphor that the poltergeist represents was just a bit better realized.

Synthesis fans, should there be any, must be longing for a fix by this point. They get it in the best story in the issue, Jo Clayton's "Borrowed Light." Kara, an offworlder, is inadvertently blown onto a sacred isle by a storm; the penalty nonetheless is death. Not a quick death, but a guided one, by a guide who is likewise terminal. Kara refuses to accept her fate, but she cannot escape and cannot fight the gentle guide. She must find an alternate course. What she does is as subtle as Ben Jeapes' insinuations, yet better fitting the story's literally elegiac mood. There is nothing that need be genre here, yet the story never feels like animated anthropology. It is lyrical, deeply felt science fiction about a new kind of relationship. A fine job.

For nitpickers and nominators, I should mention that "Pages Out of Order," labeled a short story, is a minimum of a half-page longer than "Rimrunner's Home," labeled a novelette. It's my guess that "Pages" is the one mislabeled. While I am tempted to read something sinister into all this, it's most probable that the mistake is merely a mistake, not a harbinger of the apocalypse.

Copyright 1998 by Steve Carper

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