“The Calorie Man”by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 2005)
This long novelette is bursting with ideas that can barely all fit into the required space, with a little more filling out this could be novel easily. The calorie man of the title is Lalji, something of a mercenary in a future where all the standard crops have been destroyed by various plagues and pestilence, and all that’s left is some form of engineered grain that is simply referred to as “calories” and is proprietary to a few huge agriculture companies. The worlds supplies of energy would also seem to have been depleted, so that feeding this calories to draft animals or using technology advanced versions of primitive mechanisms like wind-up springs are the primary ways that people get around and get things done. Within this backdrop, Lalji decides to navigate a barge full of “unlicensed” calories down the Mississippi River, meeting up with a supplier named Bowman, who it turns out has a side-business of his own that he hopes will break the monopoly of the big conglomerates. The backdrop of this story presents a completely plausible yet frighteningly different future where suburbs have emptied out because there’s not enough energy to transport people around, people sell energy at exorbitant prices to feed their families, and yet there’s nothing to eat except the bland tasteless calories. This story jumps around a lot, the characters are a bit difficult to get a handle on, the alien nature of the future makes it more challenging to understand while trying to follow the plot at the same time, but it’s a very original take on a very possible future, and given the amount of thought that’s gone into it, it would be a shame if the author didn’t use a few more stories to explore it a little more.
“Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle (Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 2005)
I haven’t read “The Last Unicorn”, my impression is that if you have, this story will mean something more to you, as it seems to pick up on certain characters in their dotage to see what happens to them, more as an epilogue to a longer narrative. But taken on its own merits, this is still an effective, well-told and clearly described story, given from the viewpoint of a young girl whose town has been terrorized by a griffin. After numerous knights have been sent by the king to deal with the problem and each has met his demise one by one, she takes it upon herself to go find the king and ask him to do something about it. Along the way she meets an old wizard and his female companion, who are also going to see the king, and they join forces. Now this doesn’t sound terribly original even to the limited amount of fantasy I’ve read, but there’s such affection for the chracters that you don’t care, and Beagle doesn’t get distracted with over-describing everything and sticks to the plot. They meet the king, who is a doddering old man at this point, but he agrees that something should be done and takes it upon himself to do it. The second half of story builds on the underlying unspoken tension that the king has no business taking on this challenge and that it will all end badly. The ending is somewhat expected but movingly told (GVG says it brought him to tears when he first read it), the pacing and structure are exemplary and the story does stay with you. Having said that, it’s not the sort of thing I enjoy reading that much, but that’s certainly not Beagle’s fault, if this is your cup of tea, you’ll probably love it.
“The King of Where-I-Go” by Howard Waldrop (SCI FICTION December 7, 2005)
Waldrop tells a semi-autobiographical tale in the first person of a boy and his sister growing up in the south in the ’50’s, and how their relationship changes when his sister contracts polio. Her case is not severe, so she is eventually able to walk again, and for maybe 80% of the story there is no sfnal element whatsoever. Years later as adults, she goes off to some shadowy clinic and communicates infrequently with her brother, who starts noticing odd things happening. There’s a strong nostalgia element to this story, sort of a “Jeffty is Five” for the millennium, harkening back to one’s boyhood and the things you remember happening and wish you either could’ve appreciated more or could’ve changed somehow. The ending is pure Twilight Zone, the past and future come together, and while it’s not the most original effect it seems to work in this context, in the sense that the narrator gets what he wants, even though it causes everything to be different. I haven’t read much Waldrop, I always got the impression he was a little more off the wall than this, but this story is very straight up and evocative, wistful in fact, presumably because this is a subject close to his heart and maybe a bit of wish fulfillment. Or maybe he’s just a really good writer and this has nothing to do with anything in his own life. Either way, the story holds up on its own merits, but it’s a bit of a throwback, there’s nothing here to indicate it wasn’t written 30 years ago. Something of a pattern with the Resnick short story nominee: straightforward tale of two people dealing with one’s serious illness, which veers off into sf only towards the end.