Review of Death Must Die

It was a fight, and I was in it to the finish.

“Death Must Die,” by Albert E. Cowdrey, packs a lot of punch and richness into a brief space. It is framed as a reprint, which adds depth, as does including narrative, interview, and an editor’s note.

The textual richness enlivens a humorous and touching story about spirits and the things that draw them back from the hereafter. Much of the humor comes from the well-realized characters confronting the idea of real ghosts, and from the hangups and obsessions of the ghosts themselves.

There is something historical in the story as well, some interesting perspective on the way the past holds on to the present. The question of how to confront and transcend the past, whether in personal or political terms, is a constant theme in life. This story’s climactic battle could be read as one way to reconsider history.

The ending, which I will not spoil, is surprisingly touching as well.

“Death Must Die” appeared in the November/December 2010 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Review of Swamp City Lament

Something small and bright green has attached itself to one of the moldering crossbeams.

I wrote about another story by Alexandra Duncan (“The Door in the Earth”), which scared me. “Swamp City Lament” is scary in its own way, as it portrays the future of humanity after a fall. Stories that explore that theme are among my favorites.

What really stood out for me in this story, though, was the characters. The terrain and tone were depressing and felt real, but the people were doing what people do: scheming, bickering, and making the best of the world as it was. The main character, Miren, has no memory of the way things were before, and her voice mediates our experience of the strange, rich world. Her familiar teenage rebellion and curiosity counterbalance the sad reality of the story’s future.

“Swamp City Lament” appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Review of Ware of the Worlds

…if my suspicions were correct the world was about to get even more interesting than usual.

Although “Ware of the Worlds,” by Michael Alexander, is comedic, I felt a dark heart beneath the humorous surface. In the story, mysterious objects land around the world. These objects, it turns out, are capable of granting wishes–any wishes, of anyone nearby.

Most of the wishes are exactly what the reader would expect. Indeed, my criticism of the story would be that it unfolds in a predictable direction once the wish-granting ability of the objects is understood. Still, it says something that the progress is both deadly and predictable. People, we correctly predict, are a danger to ourselves and others.

“Ware of the Worlds” can be found in the November/December 2010 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Review of The Exterminator’s Want Ad

We despised green power networks because climate change was a myth. Until the climate actually changed.

“The Exterminator’s Want Ad,” by Bruce Sterling, employs a cool conceit: it tells the story of the U.S. after climate change–and after an ensuing civil war–from the point of view of an embittered, spiteful partisan of the losing side. It reads like the cri de coeur of some portion of the American id, in love with getting and spending, unwilling to consider the consequences.

The narrator invites our scorn, and yet there is something appealing about his honesty. Who among us does not love air conditioning on an August day? He is uncomfortable in the networked future, where technology allows humanity to maintain a bare margin ahead of the forces of collapse.

I read the story over, trying to find its meaning. Of course there are always several. The reading I like best has to do with the resilience of humanity. Selfishness has its place, as does cooperation, and the presence of both in the human memeplex gives us insurance against a lot of possible outcomes. It’s good for us. Whether it’s good for the planet we call home is more in doubt.

“The Exterminator’s Want Ad” appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Review of The Literomancer

Sometimes, Lilly, adults have to do things that they don’t want to do, because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes we do things that seem wrong, but are really right.

I found a lot to admire in “The Literomancer,” by Ken Liu. There is a novel (to me, anyway) magical system, which grows out of the building blocks of words themselves. Words become the grounds of ambiguous meaning and interpretation in a rich and enjoyable portrayal of divination.

Ambiguity and interpretation play a major role in the larger events of the story. The setting is China, in the past, a time of intrigue and turbulence. Can simple friendship take root in such an environment? The answer depends on how you look at it, and what you think those words mean.

“The Literomancer” appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Review of The Door in the Earth

“The Door in the Earth,” by Alexandra Duncan, scared me on a pretty deep level. Horror is not my favorite genre and, when I started reading the story, to be honest I did not expect to like it. I consider it a testament to the author that I ended up fascinated and drawn in by it.

The story follows a pair of siblings visiting their mother, who lives in a strange home with a mysterious door. The suspense of what lies beyond the door grows alongside the discomfort these siblings feel as they reconnect with their mother after being apart from her for a while.

The story’s conclusion gave me the feeling I consider the hallmark of successful horror: increased heart rate and the sudden need to check behind me.

“The Door in the Earth” can be found in the September/October 2010 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.