Cover and Defense

Two completely separate things, in this case!

At Seagull Rising, Jon Mollison talks about Cirsova’s cover art in comparison to some of the big-name magazines.

One thing, as a heavy fantasy-leaning magazine with most of our SF stuff being more Sword & Planet, we have ended up with more fantasy-esque covers. Worth noting, though, the guy on the cover of issue 2 has a pre-Star Wars light saber (Star Lances; the first Dream Lords book was 1975).

It may be a bit before we get an outer-space SF cover, especially since issue 5 is going to be Lovecraftian Sword & Planet, but we’ve always wanted to go for really cool, bright and colorful covers, not just to set us apart from so many of today’s magazines*, but because we want them to look awesome. We really could not have achieved this without Jabari Weathers, who is amazingly talented.

Meanwhile, Doug Cole at Gaming Ballistic has taken a look at our post on Parrying and extrapolated a bit on his own ideas for various defensive mechanics in RPGs. I don’t know that anyone will ever agree on the best mechanical way to handle the defensive utility offered by a shield, but Doug has a few of his own to offer up in his Dragon Heresy game.

*:Though FWIW, the cover art for Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has almost always been a consistently bland and muddied mess of abstraction.

Short Reviews – The Overworld, by Jack Vance

The Overworld by Jack Vance first appeared in the December 1965 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.


Real Short Reviews will return at Castalia House next week with George A. Whittington’s Mists of Mars.  Today, check out this interview I did with Joe Stech of Compelling Science Fiction.  No foolin!*

Since I’ve been talking about thieves this week and have finally had a chance to dig back into my Dying Earth Omnibus again for the first time in nearly two months, expect to see some actual Vance stuff in the soontime.

*:Hopefully our site will be back up soon; we’ve had some ISP issues the last couple of days; apologies to anyone who has clicked through to the short reviews I linked earlier only to land at a 404 page.  Until Castalia House comes back online, the interview with Joe Stech can be found here.


Short Reviews – The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn, Vonda McIntyre

The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn appeared in the February 1974 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

I got to this, and thought “Finally, something I can sink my teeth into!” It had anthropoid carnivorous bird aliens who had been living on a colony ship in search of a new homeworld.

Well, it ends up being more of an inter-generational love story and lament for how cultures can lose their way and ability to reach their potential as they instead seek comfort and safety. Still, it’s well written enough and has enough weirdness that I didn’t feel like it was wasting my time or its sci-fi elements on its premise.

The colony ship is a pretty cramped space for a race of birdfolk; they have a flight deck, but it’s barely large enough to get more than a good glide. The protagonist is an aging bird lady who still remembers their old world and longs to soar through air. She thinks the younger generations on the ship with her have been made craven by life on a spaceship, unable to fly and eating food they did not have to hunt. She ends up literally taking a young birdlad under her wing, telling him of the olden times, what it was like before the ship. Birdboy falls in loves to the chagrin of the much older birdwoman. He helps her get to the planet that’s being passed up because it’s ‘not quite right’ (the younger birdfolk are just being lazy and picky) so that she can fly one last time, and she helps him become a bird Man.

Once upon a time, I might have been all about a story like this one. It’s not the sort of thing I’m really in the mood for these days, but… BUT! If you’re going to tell this sort of story, you’d damn sure better tell it like Vonda McIntyre. Otherwise people will say “Wait a minute… this is just an old lady telling kids to get off her lawn until she decides to sleep with one of them!”

Short Reviews – A Delightful Comedic Premise, Barry Malzberg (+ some new books!)

A Delightful Comedic Premise appeared in the February 1974 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

A Delightful Comedic Premise is something of an inside joke between Barry Malzberg and Edward Ferman (the editor of F&SF) that I don’t quite feel let in on, not having read any of Malzberg’s other work.

This piece is written as a series of exchanges between Ferman, who is offering to commission a story, and Malzberg, who is pitching various ideas. The joke is that Ferman wants something lighthearted and humorous, while Malzberg’s sense of humor doesn’t jibe with what Ferman wants. Malzberg keeps pitching ideas for cynical satirical pieces, and Ferman rejects them. This goes on through three different pitches until Ferman gives up on asking Malzberg for a piece and Malzberg has a breakdown.

Some of the ideas that Malzberg pitches might have made for really neat stories; I would’ve much rather read those. As such, I’ll give Malzberg another chance.


I just can’t help myself when it comes to picking up strange looking old sci-fi paperbacks. A few weeks ago, I saw this on Goodshowsir.


I realized I recognized the name: there was a stack of books by Swann in the same pile I’d got those Andrew J. Offutt books from at the store near where I work. Minikins wasn’t among them, but I got 5 books with equally wild and strange covers for 10 bucks. This bit from his wiki page was enough to convince me he was worth checking out: “…the painter Hieronymus Bosch is abducted by hideous aliens and forced to paint them…”

First, though, I need to finish the Complete Kull.

Short Reviews – In Rubble, Pleading, Michael Bishop

In Rubble, Pleading by Michael Bishop appears in the February 1974 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Michael Bishop’s In Rubble, Pleading was one of those odd stories that likes to sneak its way into Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction which is not particularly fantastical or really science fiction, or even speculative, beyond the speculation of the character within. This piece has a bit of horror and southern gothic going on with it, but didn’t scratch the itch I’ve had lately. It wasn’t a bad story, so I won’t hold that against it.

Folks are in a barbershop right after one of a series of deadly tornadoes, talking about the weather. One guy recounts a particularly gruesome anecdote about a boy he found with a board sticking through his torso and how there was nothing that could be done but wait for the kid to succumb to his injuries. The boy in the barbershop thinks to himself that maybe a conscious force is directing the tornadoes.

I… I’m sorry, I couldn’t make that sound interesting.  It’s the sort of thing you might read in one of those collections of “REALTRUELIFESCARYSTORIES!” or some other book dressed up as campfire ghost stories that aren’t really ghost stories, and it would feel at home there. But at least it wasn’t a 61 page Jewish Mother joke or a Joanna Russ screed about white privilege!

If you go into a story like this with ghost-story/true-horror expectations, you’ll find that it’s a pretty decent well-told examples of the genre. Just maybe don’t read it coming down from the high of finishing one of Leigh Brackett’s Mars novel.

Short Reviews – Time is Money, Haskell Barkin

Time is Money by Haskell Barkin appears in the January 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Time is Money is actually a pretty good story that suffers only from the fact that it is a short story in an issue wherein almost all of the other short stories were terrible and it immediately followed one of the best sci-fi novelettes I’ve ever read. So, if you get a chance to read this on its own without the taint and reek of My Boat and Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel or in the voluptuous shadow of Supercon Sal, I strongly suggest you do so.

The premise is that Sam Finnegan, a marketing guru, is hired by a mysterious stranger and paid in cash astonishing amounts of money to create an advertising campaign for a Time Machine. The one condition is Sam cannot use ANY of the materials he creates for the campaign in portfolios; no one can see what he’s working on. Sam creates a truly amazing and inspired campaign, some of his finest work, but alas, he’ll never be able to share it with the world! The whole time, he’s wondering if his client is a crazy eccentric or if, god forbid, the man actually DOES have a time machine. Whatever the case, the pay is good enough play along.

Of course it’s revealed that the client IS a time-traveller from the future. In fact, he’s actually the ad agent for the company who commissioned an ad campaign for their time vactions; unable to come up with anything good enough, he went back in time to get a master of marketing (one of those guys I hear that show Mad Men is about) to come up with the campaign for him. So, what’s the protagonist going to do now that he’s spent months on what will be an unseen ad campaign?

“Our ecology campaigns make up half the agency’s billing. Save our forests, streams, oceans, etc. for the future? Well, I’ve seen the future, gentlemen. And it pays.”

At first I was a bit put off by the ending and felt it smacked of ‘herp derp, environmentalism’, but that’s because I was so ready to be done with this issue that I missed the snark the first time around. Or maybe I’m choosing to read snark into it because I want to like this story. Who knows, maybe Haskell Barkin really was writing this as an environmentalist prophetic?

But what we know today is that, as the character predicted, environmentalism is big profitable business, and this was written during the early bloom. Whether it was global cooling, global warming, or climate change, there’s been a ton of money to be made in Big Environment; and while some of it is to be made through grants and money laundered through non-profits, the biggest driver and biggest beneficiary of environmentalism is marketing. Millions are spent and made in creating everything from feel-good sing-alongs to heart-wrenching visual tone poems to feature-length jeremiads. Al Gore has several mansions, on beach-front property no less (hedging our bets, are we?), celebrities speaking out on environmental issue jet-set around the world on private planes, and they get to wallow in piles of cash because marketing geniuses know how to jab people in the feels and give these people money because they’ve been convinced it’s making a difference. It’s the same mentality that has people thinking that eating a giant tub worth of yogurt actually does anything to help cure cancer that donating the cost of one yogurt cup to research would actually do better.

For those who, like Sam Finnegan, saw the future of environmentalism, it certainly did pay.

Short Reviews – Books, Joanna Russ

This is not really a Short Review. It is me complaining about the February 1974 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Sorry.

Joanna Russ, writer of bad magic negress Lovecraft fanfiction, begins her column in this issue stating “In the 1950’s somebody defined urban renewal as “replacing Negroes with trees,” and I’m beginning to think that in the same way too many typical science fiction horror stories are not the universal dystopias they pretend to be, but rather the unhappy wails of privilege-coming-to-and-end(sic).” That one sentence was enough; I wasn’t going to bother reading six pages of her tripe, but now the commenters in the letters section of the January 1976 issue complaining about the Books column having turned into kvetching by literary critics and writers airing out their personal grudges rather than alerting readers to great new science fiction make a lot more sense. Thank god that the other two issues I have had Budrys writing the column.

I solidly expect this issue of F&SF to be completely terrible (I accidentally saw the ending of the novella; 60+ pages to set up a Jewish mother joke) and don’t even know if I want to waste my time on it. I’d rather write about fun and awesome SF&F than bitch about bad SF&F; it would at least be more useful to my readers.

Do any of the following names ring a bell or should I skip this issue entirely (except for Baird Searles column, of course)?
Michael Bishop
Barry Malzberg
Vonda McIntyre
Dennis Etchison
Joseph Green

So, rather than be angry and read something that I knew was going to amount to a novella length Jew joke, I started Leigh Brackett’s The Nemesis from Terra. It was immediately obvious that I had made the correct choice. Brackett plunges us straight into the action, wherein a man is pursued by Martian apes, kills a Martian mystic who predicts his ascendancy over Mars, is tossed in the slave mines to work for chain smoking Mercurian thugs, and meets a lady with “a strong, supple body whose curves even the coverall couldn’t hide and hair of a rich, warm mahogany color that made her skin look like cream” who he calls ‘baby’. Mmmmm… problematic sci-fi…

"Now that we're king and queen of Mars, baby, I'm gonna light up a Kent!"  Not even Martian fines make it through our famous Micronite filter!

“Now that we’re king and queen of Mars, baby, I’m gonna light up a Kent!” Not even Martian fines make it through our famous Micronite filter!

In completely unrelated news, new empirical evidence suggests that internalized misogyny goes straight to the chest and improves STEM related skills.

Short Reviews – Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal, Gary K Wolf

Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal appears in the January 1976 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was the cover story.  Gary K Wolf eventually went on to create Roger Rabbit, because of course he did.

Long before Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Ecks & Sever, there was Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal. He’s a rogue robotics engineer whose social ineptitude has led him to prefer to con and keep the company of the robots he’s modified. She’s a sassy dame who’s not afraid to use her feminine wiles to wring every last dollar out of lonely space men. An evil space mining boss has set these two top notch cons against one another to take them out of the picture of his diabolical schemes. Will Doc & Sal figure out they’ve both been set up before sparks fly and light the powder keg they’ve stumbled on?!

Putting crime noir characters in the sort of pulpy setting from which great stuff like Futurama liberally borrows, Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal embodies so much of what makes science fiction fun. It’s subversive fun, and feels a bit naughty, because it knowingly disregards certain conventions and tropes of both ::finger quotes:: “serious” sci-fi and pulp crime thrillers while taking others and playing them to the hilt in a way that makes the mundane outlandish and the outlandish plausible.  By making the crime noir thriller a sci-fi romp and the using sci-fi as a means to ramp up action, Wolf creates a stunning synthesis of the genres that spoofs both but makes a masterpiece to fit in either.

Yesterday, I mentioned my dislike for Stanislaw Lem’s more absurdist writing. In those kinds of stories, absurd concepts are expanded upon like a balloon to see how much the idea and story can take until it pops. Rather than creating a story in which the premise eventually collapses under its absurdity, Wolf only uses the absurd to where it will help prop up the law of awesome. Much like Supercon Sal herself, this story is not afraid to show some leg. Whether it’s a double crossing space pirate robo-kitchenette, the president flying around on a jetpack, not one but two Boss Hogg-quality villains on our heroes’ trail, or even the kitschy 20th century theme diners whose themes all spring from a gross misunderstanding of the 20th century, it’s all about making the story fun, exciting and cool. It’s the sort of mile-a-minute sci-fi action that you rarely see (with The 5th Element still being held up as one of the best recent examples) because it’s often so easy to get bogged down in this or that detail. No bogging down here, just sexy sci-fi hi-jinks.

Not everyone can be a sword wielding prince of Mars, of but with a little luck and ingenuity, we insecure techno-doofs might, like Doc Rivet, have a chance of landing a big score and winning the heart of a bombshell blonde that robots and spacemen alike would give their left nut for a wink and a smile.  I’m especially grateful that DR & SS was in this issue, because otherwise the January 1976 issue would’ve been a miserable waste of preachy, dismal or just plain bad short fiction.

Doctor Rivet and his robot buddy pull the old snake-oil cure-all super-tonic con on a group of mining robots.

Doctor Rivet and his robot buddy pull the old snake-oil cure-all super-tonic con on a group of mining robots.

On a side note, I’d like to share with you one of the most trolleriffic Guardian articles I’ve ever read (and that’s saying something)!  Behold: “Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction”

Short Reviews – The Attack of the Giant Baby, Kit Reed

The Attack of the Giant Baby by Kit Reed appears in the January 1976 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Paul Atler successfully sued Disney and was awarded $300,000 in 1993 after claiming they ripped off his unfilmed script “Now, That’s a Baby!” for “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid”. Kit Reed should probably sue Paul Atler for ruining her shot at an equally valid suit that Disney ripped off her dreadful 1976 short story.  Personally, I think we should file a class action against all three of them stipulating no more giant baby stories.

The only things that The Attack of the Giant Baby has going for it are that it’s ‘Exactly What it Says On the Tin‘ and the promised sequel “The Attack of the Giant Toddler” either does not exist or is at least published in some other rag that I don’t have and won’t look for.

It is exactly what you’d expect from a giant baby story: science gone wrong, a hand-wringing mother, and a giant baby causing destruction as it plays with things until the army shows up. This story is fine if you’ve never seen a movie with or read a story about a giant anything before, but giant baby stories are boring because they lack the deep and complex existential pain that can be explored in giant man stories. Or the sexy of giant lady stories.

Reed also wrote The Holdouts, so I can at least say “She got better”.

Short Reviews – Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel, Michael G Coney

Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel by Michael G Coney appeared in the January 1976 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I can’t help but feel like this is the kind of story that folks are complaining about when they say “I keep buying books with space ships on the cover, but I’m let down every time!” With a name like “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel”, one is really hoping for something like Bruce Springsteen’s Racing in the Streets but with spaceships. What we end up with is a sappy boys-love story where the science fiction element is so tangential that it could be swapped out for anything.

A dude is going back to his old childhood stomping grounds and goes on a long reminisce about how he and his friend (Charlesworth x_X) used to watch space ships land in the space port. One of those sort of “I did it for love, he did it out of obsession” things. The friend cared less about watching the ships and more about trying to check them off his “list”. The spaceport and spaceships could’ve just as easily been boats coming into harbor or planes landing at an airport.  Hell, they could be bird watching.

Of course, eventually a girl (who hates and is hated by the narrator, naturally) comes between the narrator and his friend, and they stop watching spaceships together. The only other sci-fi element is that the girl has an expensive pet telepathic cat, but since the cats are only telepathic with each other, it might as well be any animal. Narrator’s friend comes with the girl for one last look at the ships so he can mark the final one off his checklist because girl’s dad has bought a mate for the magic cat. Cat freaks out, runs toward the ship and gets fried by retro-rockets.

So, the narrator has come back in the vague hopes of recapturing some of those childhood days of wonder and “maybe I’ll see my old friend” and shock! He does! His friend is now a successful scrapping contractor (tearing up the old spaceport, no less; how symbolic!), but alas, the narrator feels they are far too different people now, so he doesn’t approach old Charlesworth to talk to him. The end.

This story was bad. It was probably the worst story in this issue, which is really saying something, because with a couple exceptions, this issue was pretty execrable.