I’m about 2/3 of the way through the September issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction and my feelings are mixed. I’ve been forcing myself to read every story, front to back, which is not at all how I would read the magazine if I had picked it up at the newsstand. Isn’t that interesting? Because F&SF sent me the copy free, I feel obligated to read it more thoroughly than if I’d spent my own hard-earned money on it!
The first story, Alexaner Jablakov’s “Wrong Number”, has an intriguing premise, but ultimately fell flat for me. The idea is, there’s an auto mechanic who fixes not just cars but people’s lives — a power he developed out of his own grief and frustration over a brush with the super-natural. The “bad guy” in “Wrong Number” is a creepy guy who collects women using some sort of mind control — the deepest wish of everyone who’s lost a lover to someone else, made flesh and blood in the story. The protagonist of the tale is a woman who, after her own run-in with the creepy fellow, gave him a false number to throw him off her track; the story starts when she wakes years later up with that wrong number playing endlessly through her head, a curse laid upon her by the jilted would-be lover.
I’m trying to be clear here, because the story isn’t — the nature and workings of the mechanic’s powers are fuzzy and poorly explained, and the plot gets wrapped up in its own cleverness too often for comfort. I found myself spending more time trying to figure out what was happening and, more importantly, why than I did caring about the characters. The wrap-up is all too convenient, the story itself is held together by a string of coincidences (the mechanic is supposed to be able to control coincidence somehow, which makes the fact that I never overcame my disbelief all the more troubling), and the love story is, well… a bit boring.
My interest was held much more strongly by “Envoy Extraordinary”, by Albert E. Cowdrey. “Envoy…” describes the arrival of Vincent Khartoum, a fat and self-satisfied diplomatic officer from the slums of Peoria, IL, on the backwater planet Malakatha. Khartoum’s mission is to negotiate the dismantling of the planet’s space fleet, ostensibly to prevent its threatening a wormhole gate near the planet’s system. His partner in negotiation is a singularly repulsive figure, an interplanetary Idi Amin without the style or charisma, who lives in magnificent splendor while his planet’s citizens starve, and who takes pleasure in the debasement of others and his own aggrandizement. As he prepares his negotiations, Khartoum realizes that there is really no threat, given new military technologies in place, and begins to have misgivings about the nature of his trip.
“Envoy…” has all the makings of an insightful, suspenseful story, but drops it at the end. I don’t want to give away too much, so you’ll have to take me at my word when I say that it seems like Cowdrey’s story began to get away from him, spinning into a much larger project than he was comfortable with, so he literally blew it up. An interesting idea, and a character that I was beginning to care about, despite his many flaws and general dislikability, thrown over to tell a tale of petty spite.