A Date with the F&SF Oct/Nov All-Star Issue, Part 1: First Impressions

A month ago, Gordon Van Gelder offered 20 free copies of the Oct/Nov 2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine to enterprising bloggers who wished to review it—a chance to see what people liked and disliked, and what might convince people to subscribe (or keep buying issues off the news stand, or whatever, but subscription is obviously ideal).

This is very kind, especially since the bloggers for this particular promotion (including yours truly) get to review the special anniversary all-star issue. So I decided, what the heck: let’s really go in depth. Let’s write up an entire series reviewing this special issue. There’s so much stuff here, ladies and gentlemen, that I don’t feel comfortable simply giving this a one-off post. And besides, there probably aren’t that many readers of F&SF, now or potential future ones, who actually read a new issue all in one night. It’s like a box of chocolates to be spread out over a week or so—especially if we’re talking the special annual.

And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

So let’s start with what may seem to be a trivial aspect of any magazine, but is a strong part of what makes someone decide to pick any particular issue off the news stands (and thus possibly subscribe) ((You know. Apart from being a writer who wants to get something published in one of the big three. That’s not a sustainable audience.)) : first impressions.

For a good first impression is why, a year ago—in fact, exactly a year ago—I bought an issue of F&SF from a Borders magazine stand and discovered the wonder that is Ted Chiang. That first impression is what encouraged me to buy the next issue after that, the 2007 Oct/Nov All-Star anniversary issue. Of course, first impressions don’t last, which is why I didn’t bother buying F&SF again after the… general, but not total, fail… of last year’s anniversary issue. Which just goes to show that even if you get an all-star anniversary issue of anything, it might all be nougat centers in your chocolate box. And I hate nougat.

So let’s do some comparisons here. And this is going to be a bit picture-spammy, so I’m putting the rest of this article below the cut.

September 2007

This was what I first saw:

You bet this made an impression on me. For one thing, it was neither a canned fantasy nor a canned science fiction cover. And it was also eye-catching. This made me feel positively inclined towards the magazine, even though when I picked up and read the contents, I—as a F&SF newbie, and I think that’s important, because I’m the kind of audience that can grow a magazine and the genre audience in general—knew nobody in it. Now I do, of course, but it was first and foremost the cover that did me in. ((I understand that some people think the cover is too drab and brown. I thought it was different. This is just me, mind you.))

Shallow? Yes. But who cares about shallow? I bought the magazine, did I not? A foot in the door. And I enjoyed it, despite not knowing anybody in it. I discovered people. I loved The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. “Requirements for the Mythology Merit Badge” was outrageously funny. I remember those two the best. I otherwise remember having loved everything else (even the stuff that, were it outside such a pleasing context, I might not have as much). I wanted to snuggle that issue (in fact, it was in bed with me for a week. Okay, TMI). I am deeply disturbed that I cannot find it right now, in fact….

Anyways, I was excited about the next issue.

October/November 2007 All-Star Anniversary Issue

That’s 2007, not 2008. This is what I saw:

Yes, it’s a very well-done cover. You know, the art’s really good. It was just… just… well… so… canned, and a little… well… oh, whatever. I didn’t like it and my friend stared at it and said, “And… you’re buying that?” I smiled and muttered something about covers, not telling, book by, etc.

I’ve known the works of Swanwick and Silverberg and de Lint for a few years (thanks to recommendations from Warren Ellis, a friend, and Neil Gaiman). de Lint wasn’t writing the fiction, so I was looking forwards to the other two. And yet… I didn’t like the stories. I didn’t even like the ones from the authors I knew. In fact, I don’t even remember the stories. Nothing really sticks out in my mind; I look at the titles a year later and think, did I really read that? What did I read? Apparently this:

Novellas
The Bird Shaman’s Girl … Judith Moffett

Novelettes
Against the Current … Robert Silverberg
The Diamond Shadow … Fred Chappell
The Recreation Room … Albert E. Cowdrey
Urdumheim … Michael Swanwick

Short Stories
The Star to Every Wandering Barque … James Stoddard
Two Weeks After … M. Ramsey Chapman
Fragrant Goddess … Paul Park
Unpossible … Daryl Gregory

(Then the usual departments stuff, the kind of thing I do always like, but that alone is not enough to get me to buy an issue of F&SF, nor should it.)

I put my general “meh” towards that issue down to fickleness. I wondered then, and I wonder now, what was/is wrong with me? I did try to get into some of the stories again yesterday during the more lucid periods between my episodes of somnambulism, thinking that perhaps a small year of more familiarity with the genre would make a difference, but no dice. Curious, I then read some of Avram Davidson’s later work that I think would be in F&SF, and liked those. Why didn’t I like the ones here?

So I didn’t pick up the next issue (which was unfortunate for me, because I missed out on David Moles’ Finisterra, which was nominated for the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, and definitely deserved the nomination).

Anyways, past’s past. How does 2008’s All-Star Anniversary issue do in comparison?

October/November 2008 All-Star Anniversary Issue

Ready?

Eh. I’m not repulsed. I’m not in love. Which calls my tastes into question, because there is something about this:

that I like in comparison to that, but I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the extra death and destruction (the one on the Oct/Nov issue just promises death and destruction in some unknown direction). Maybe it’s because I have such strong associations between art that looks like that and my favorite (and very popular) author, John Scalzi. Maybe it’s the more impressionistic flavor. I could see this in an art gallery. I can’t see the previous on anything but a paperback cover. Then again, you can see gigantic boxes of tissue paper in art galleries.

So what’s the chocolate map like inside?

Novelets
Days of Wonder … Geoff Ryman
The Visionaries … Robert Reed
Planetesimal Dawn … Tim Sullivan

Short Stories
Inside Story … Albert E. Cowdrey
Sleepless Years … Steven Utley
The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates … Stephen King
Dazzle Joins the Screenwriter’s Guild … Scott Bradfield
Going Back in Time … Laurel Winter
Private Eye … Terry Bisson
Whoever … Carol Emshwiller
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandomnent: One Daughter’s Personal Account … M. Rickert
The Scarecrow’s Boy … Michael Swanwick

Poems
December … Sophie M. White

I am full of apprehension actually. My memory of the last anniversary issue is not favorable. And neither in 2007 nor in 2008 is there a Ted Chiang. Nor a David Moles. Nor an Elizabeth Bear.

Do I want big names, or do I want stuff I like? Shouldn’t there be a near perfect intersection between the two? Why did I like September 2007 and dislike the 2007 annual, which was chock full of Dependably Good Writers? Why am I concerned now and not trusting that the 2008 annual will result in an utterly delightful week? I’d be concerned even if Gene Wolfe were in this issue, because I remember Memorare from another issue last year that a friend loaned me, and while interesting, I really didn’t like it (and I usually fall all over Gene Wolfe).

Let’s see how the rest of this goes. Expect my next report tomorrow, when I dive into Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Inside Story” and Steve Utley’s “Sleepless Years”, because that’s the order they’re actually presented in the issue (interspersed with the department stuff, but I always like those, so I’ll save them to the end).

Addendum

I thought to myself, what are the other covers like? Going backwards in 2007, then forwards in 2008:


December 2007. Neat.


August 2007. Okay.


July 2007. Neat!


June 2007. Different.


May 2007. Different-ish.


April 2007. More disturbing than neat.


March 2007. Not for me.


February 2007. Not for me.


January 2007. Interesting in a Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett cover kind of way. (I like them.)


January 2008. Funny. For some reason I would have assumed this to be a special edition of some kind, probably because of the ant alien sitting under the mailbox. Self-referential art seems to go with special editions.


February 2008. Not for me.


March 2008. Ooh. If I were in a gothic mood….


April 2008. Hm! Maybe it is the death and destruction.


May 2008. Not for me.


June 2008. I suspect I should like this, but for some reason I don’t.


July 2008. Funky. Which is good coming from me.


August 2008. Request: less mullets, more death and destruction. Still, this isn’t static. And it is unusual. And yet…


September 2008. Ooooh. Pretty. Like.

I wonder how these render on the Kindle. Sometimes images do render well in grayscale, and sometimes not.

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