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Postscripts: issue 5 (autumn 2005)

(PS Publishing, £6, 144 pages, paperback magazine, published autumn 2005. Also available in hardback, and by subscription.)

Review by Keith Brooke

cover scanThe best fiction magazines can be relied on to include, if not bad stories then stories that just don't work for you, stories you don't get (although you can be pretty sure that there is, in fact, something to get). This is their nature, because the best fiction magazines can also be relied on to include stories you really do get, stories that dare to be different.

With its fifth issue, Postscripts continues to publish stories I don't get, but more importantly it's publishing some fine, fine work. It subtitles itself "The A to Z of Fantastic Fiction", which while a little misleading if taken at face value -- while much of the fiction is fantastical, that's not really a requirement in Postscripts -- it's quite appropriate when you apply the more prosaic meaning of "fantastic": there have been some fantastic stories in this publication's first five issues, and I'm sure there's more to come.

Setting a heartening tone of optimism to this issue, Ramsey Campbell's guest editorial raises Stephen King's argument that short fiction is even closer to extinction than poetry only to knock it back again, arguing that short fiction has always been threatened, just as it always rises again. While we might bemoan dwindling readerships for the magazines and closing markets, you only have to look at the annual February overview in Locus, or the overviews from the various Year's Bests to get a feel for just how much short fiction is out there. It's more than just a case of counting stories, though: Campbell concludes with an annotated reading list of (mostly) horror authors with story collections out, illustrating both the breadth and the high quality of current short fiction. The other non-fiction in this issue consists of an interview with China Miéville, perhaps most interesting when he talks about the quest to write the perfect political novel, and most amusing as he insists on not talking about the New Weird, at length.

Three of the seven stories in this issue didn't really do it for me, to varying extents. Matthew Rossi is one of the more fascinating newer writers, his contribution labelled here as fiction but really occupying some nebulous territory between fiction and non -- a kind of speculative non-fiction, or fictive essay -- with a steadily expanding extrapolation of central American culture and history couched in terms of a non-fiction account but taking us somewhere else entirely. There is something to get here, but I didn't.

Juliet E McKenna's high-spirited robbery jape, "Win Some, Lose Some", prequels her first novel, Thief's Gamble, but while she's no off-the-peg commercial fantasist it's not really a field that holds much interest for me -- perhaps more my fault, or the genre-machine's fault, than McKenna's. And Stephen Baxter, usually one of my favourite short story writers, provides a moving story that is, unfortunately, too over-burdened with backfill and explanation for me: Baxter is capable of bigger thinking than most in current SF, but I prefer his work when it's in closer with his characters than this.

The four remaining stories were each striking, and in quite different ways. Chris Roberson's "Gold Mountain" is part of his Celestial Empire series, neatly inverting history so that here we have Americans, or Vinlanders as they're called here, migrating to China to work on constructing the Gold Mountain, which leads to the Bridge to Heaven -- an elevator to geosynchronous orbit. Rather slow to get going, it becomes a cleverly-constructed story of loss and the prices people pay to pursue all the small goals that combine into grand human achievement.

In another tale of suffering, Lawrence Person's "Starving Africans" tells of a brutally severe near-future with a group of journalists trapped in yet another African war. Person manages to tread the precarious path between polemic (whilst still making powerful observations) and the danger of using tragedy as a colourful backdrop for adventure (whilst still providing a gripping tale). A skilful and passionate story.

Zoran Zivkovic continues his story-suite Four Stories Till the End with "The Hospital Room", in which a man receives a series of unexpected visitors, each with a story to tell, or rather, two: each had an unusual previous career; each has dreamed of the narrator -- a similar dream, one of a trap closing, horizons drawing in, and only an enigmatic, possible escape route. It's a story of transcendence, a rite of passage, an intricate puzzle, the structure and execution of which neatly reflect its contents as the story closes in on the narrator...

The opening story in this issue is Joe Hill's "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead", in which old flames meet, made up as zombies on the set of Dawn of the Dead. This is poignant, and burning with nostalgia for a long-lost stage of life that is over all-too quickly. It is, also, at one point at least, powerfully, embarrasingly, funny. Superb!

So, another fine issue of a magazine that doesn't expect me to think every story is at least okay. Long may it continue in this vein.

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