Reviewed by Steve Redwood
First, let's get a minor niggle or two out of the way. Scifantastic has changed a bit since the first issue. An obvious improvement is the absence of spiral binding (actually very practical, but unfortunately shouting out, 'Oy, don't take me seriously!'). However, the attempt to cram as much as possible into 30 A4 pages has (for me) a serious downside: first, it looks crammed (only two of the stories start on a new page, and one of them is the first page!), and, second, the font, though clean and clear, is even smaller than in the first issue, and one has to wonder whether the editor comes from a family of opticians seeking to drum up trade; I feel it would have been better to have sacrificed some content for a physically more enjoyable reading experience. Perhaps Sarah Dobbs, the power behind (and in front of, and perhaps even on) the throne, should poll her readers on this point: maybe for other people the layout and font are fine and I simply need to clean my glasses and wipe away the dried splodges of tears caused by Real Madrid's recent performances and the fact that a lovely air hostess called Begoņa hasn't called me back.
The contents. OK, now I can be much much nicer. Almost charming, in fact. The editor certainly knows how to choose good stuff. The upside of the downside (eh?) is you get a lot of goodies for your money. For instance, I usually wince when I see 'poetry' in most small-press mags, but here we have a long and really superb poem, Banshee Lover, by Agnes Meadows, chock-a-block with strong imagery, rhythmically adventurous, formally rigorous, and such an unusual use of delayed rhyme I missed it first time round.
There are also reviews (including, folks, one of the sans pareil and about-to-metamorphose Whispers of Wickedness itself!), an interview (it doesn't actually tell you who is being interviewed on the page itself--is there nothing beyond the reach of Des Nemonymous Lewis' notorious name-bopping?--but the answer is there, lurking in the table of contents), a fascinating report by David Rafer on the UK Harry Potter Conference (academics trying to prove they're hip) which had everyone who was anyone there except the actual author herself, a supposedly humorous condensed version of a Potter book (didn't work for me at all, but then I haven't read the original), a rather odd but interesting discussion of his own work by Christian-bashing Californian artist Eric Felter ($1000 for a blowjob??) and four rather good illustrations (especially for Killing Gloria) for the fiction.
Oh, drat, you want to know about the fiction as well? Well, I suppose, while I'm here gazing longingly at the telephone...
We have ten stories (yes, even after all the above!) and nearly all of them are good or very good, which is unusual this early in a magazine's career. First, the 'merely' good. The stories by Philip Lees, the highly amusing Botman, and by Edward Morris, True Believer, are both strong, only let down, in the first case, by a weakish ending that doesn't seem to follow inevitably, as a good ending should, however subtly, and in the second case, by half the story being devoted to a discussion of what 'heroism' really is that is superficially convincing, but doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, not in my experience of bouncers!--a great and daring climactic resolution, though. Engelwürger: Hell's Apocalypse, by SJ O'Donnell, has black-hooded monks sacrificing a girl (with flowing blonde hair) as part of an invocation of supernatural powers, and a warrior figure suddenly appearing to rescue another girl who's been way too inquisitive--ground as well-trodden as a military parade ground, but nonetheless competently told, with a nice inversion that Philip Pullman would have approved of. John B Rosenman's To Tell One's Wrath is a powerful study of a man whose sense of insecurity and old jealousies lead him to push away the woman he loves, and a neat interpretation of Blake's famous lines, though the story is weakened by a 'wrong-person-drinks-the-magic-love-philtre' element. Ancient History, by Greg Schwartz, has a dusty sombrero of a premise--a man goes back into the past and sets into being a chain of events that will result in his never having been born--and is also careless, with annoying lapses like a man spitting out chewing-gum that had 'long since lost its flavor', and another man, only five lines later, picking it up, chewing it, and being 'overcome at once by the exotic flavor '.
The above stories are in the main well written and entertaining, just not as entirely successful, for the reasons given, as my second group. Top story for me is the last in the magazine, Recreation, by Damien Walter, which introduces the concept of Celebrity Anthropology, and a huge theme park recalling The Truman Show, or even more the city of Frenopolis in Storm Constantine's Calenture, where everyone leads scripted lives. Only, 'Stalin' forgets who he once really was, and Caesar's wife 'Octavia', indulging in a futuristic Debbie Does Dallas, has also set out to deliberately destroy (in order to forget?) her own early dreams. A story both satirical and sad and--possibly--finally hopeful. The Editor's own 'Choice', Amicus Homunculus by Gary McMahon, is a grim tale which has a small boy faced with the harsh reality of the usual fate of unwanted kittens, and taking it upon himself (or is he being pushed by other forces?) to avenge their deaths. For me, the best thing about the story is not the rather unlikely tale itself but the meticulous detail of the setting and the study of motivation, something I've noticed in other stories by this up-and-coming writer. Quite different in tone is Lee Moan's Killing Gloria, a successful action-packed mixture of serious and a bit tongue-in-cheek, as a man tries to rid himself of an android or replicant who (though more like Desdemona than Othello, but I do so want to throw in the one Shakespearean quote I can remember!) 'loved not wisely but too well', and more to the point, 'one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme'. After the husband has 'killed' the too-devoted lady for the second time, she is getting tetchy, and indeed rather ominously 'perplexed': "I'm finding it very hard not to be angry with you right now." Retribution swiftly follows, as it is wont to do in fiction. This would make a wonderful Twilight Zone film. As would The Tale of Mickey Noone, by Co McPhee, a highly entertaining take on the pact-with-the-Devil idea--only what happens if you can't recall the exact details of the pact, or remember that the offer of indestructibility is only provisional?--AFTER you have agreed to housesit for a gang boss awaiting an assassin? Finally, in this 'very good' category, we have The Ghost of You by John Peace, about a man in a future society who does not want to be kept alive at all costs, even though his own dead wife has a digitalised 'immortality': "I refuse to accept this silhouette replica of a life that was". The final paragraph consists of two words, a little masterpiece of an ending.
Verdict: make sure your reading glasses are in good condition, and, if so, cough up the loot, sure of more than getting your money's worth. (As an added bonus, I don't recall coming across a single typo as such in the whole magazine--of course, they might have been too small for my Begoņa-blinded tearful eyes to see!)
Scifantastic edited by Sarah Dobbs, 22 Rushdene, Poolstock, Wigan, WN3 5HJ, UK. A4, 32pp, £2.50 per issue (£9.50 4-issue sub).
Steve Redwood is the author of Fisher of Devils (Prime Books: www.primebooks.net ) and Who Needs Cleopatra ? (Reverb Books: www.readreverb.com )
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