OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Broken Sun, Broken Moon – by Brent Hayward
Published by ChiZine Publications, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 2019.
All stories in this horror anthology are by Brent Hayward
The world is the ocean and the bridge, both eternal, both infinite. There is no end to either. Beneath the bridge dangles the nest. In front of the nest dangle the cleaners in their webbing. Bristle is always foremost among the crew, first to reach the next girder, first to scrape away the rust. His boss, Scrub, thinks he’s a shirker, which isn’t fair. Once a girder is clean, the crew hauls on their webbing and drags the nest, its ancient wheels clinging to equally ancient rails fixed to the under-structure of the bridge, a few more inches in their endless journey. They have to reach the next support within a few days so they can harvest more bird eggs and scrawny mice. But Bristle is distracted. Lately he’s begun to feel odd vibrations in the webbing, a subtle shuddering no one else seems to notice. Is their routine about to change?
For a literal-minded guy like me all sorts of questions spring to mind. A bridge between what, exactly? On what planet? Where’s everybody else? What’s the context of this monomaniacal obsession with cleaning a bridge? Is this a narrow focus on a “real” situation in a larger world? Or a surreal allegory?
Some of these questions are answered. Bristle encounters the unknown. His life is changed forever, though not necessarily for the better. Depends on the reader’s point of view. How much is a dull, repetitious, boring life worth? Is predictability, waking up to the same task every day, the ultimate goal in life? Should it be? Is modern civilization merely a perfect mechanism for turning human beings into automatons?
One thing for sure. Remembering some of the jobs I endured in my lifetime, I thoroughly identify with Bristle, and with his curiosity about anything outside his routine. Found it very easy to get personally involved, to get immersed in the story. Overall, though, a very bleak experience. Not a rah, rah exercise in wishful thinking. In fact a “true-to-life” bit of surrealism as real as anything life throws at you. Call it a hard lesson.
Broken Sun, Broken Moon
The town of Palmetto exists on a stony plain by a stony sea. Both the Sun and the Moon are broken and don’t rise as high as they used to. Scribe, the main character, is a peeper, a high-cognition type with excellent memory. Her job is to watch people die and record their deaths. Most people are low-cog mutants, quite deformed, which is why being called to witness the sacrifice of a perfect newborn is a bit of a surprise. Government men seem to be involved. Never a good omen.
The scribe, in violation of all custom, embarks on a quest to figure out what’s going on, not merely in terms of the latest political shenanigans, but in order to understand the basic reality of the world she lives in. Problem is, though her memories are strong and powerful, they keep shifting, as if her reality is nothing but a series of illusions. Getting at the truth is like peeling an onion, she has to discard layer after layer hoping to expose and acquire enough constants to arrive at a concrete definition of reality, rather like an insane individual searching for the meaning of sanity.
From various subtle hints in the details I concocted a fairly straight-forward science fiction interpretation of what the story is all about, but in fact nothing like that is explicitly laid out so my guestimate of what is going on is probably incorrect. It may not matter. Could be the purpose of the story is to convince the reader to question the very process of questioning one’s reality, to render suspect any and all explanations and conclusions you have drawn from your own life experience. In short, you don’t know anything and you never will. Reality isn’t so much an illusion as an open-ended scam. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Nothing but. No wonder keeping sane isn’t easy.
Arc Of A Complex Spike
Leon is a flying robot tasked with monitoring and maintaining a sector of pine forest. To his astonishment, while resting and recharging, a buried fragment of recent memory surfaces and reveals there had been a small forest fire earlier in the day. It seems his processor is malfunctioning. He is no longer capable of processing data beyond the routine. Perhaps if he investigates the charred remans of the burned-out trees his mental functioning will return to normal. He has to do it. After all, the forest needs him.
This is hard science fiction at its best. Given a certain level of technology, the nature of Leon is credible. Then, given a decline in the use of the most advanced technology, what he is may become more important than what he does. At any rate, it makes sense that the husbandry of forests will eventually be the responsibility of robots. This story looks at some of the more interesting implications and consequences, especially the matter of how humans and robots will interact. Not everyone and everything is going to follow their programming. Intriguing.
The Carpet Maker
Mr. Troy and his wife Kendra have come to an agreement. Since their 12-year-old daughter Sandra insists on leaving home, and neither of them has any income, he has to go out and get his daughter a job.
I have the impression this is the near future when the average person is unemployed and the quality of life, not to mention the environment, is absolutely miserable. One of the current myths shoved at people from all sides is that if you try your darndest, hope really hard, and pretend everything is going to work out wonderfully well, you will solve all your problems. Unfortunately, the truth is the system is rigged against you, which is why, increasingly these days, real life often turns out to be a thought-experiment by Kafka without a trace of his usual sardonic humour. This fictional example be a grim urban fantasy indeed.
The Brief Medical Career Of Fine Sam Fine
Lucinda and Moira are conjoined twins. Lucinda is quite normal in size and shape, but Moira, growing out of Lucinda’s skull, is small enough to be hidden by a large hat. Of the two, Moira is more intelligent and quite the romantic. Lucinda, on the other hand, is an alcoholic. Their dating habits are a source of conflict. The two don’t get along.
Is this a horror story? There is no monster as such, unless you think of fate as a monster. It is a heart-wrenchingly sad story, a tragedy built on secret dreams confronted by harsh reality and compounded by desperate fantasy. As a man, and an elderly curmudgeon at that, I can only guess that it speaks to the heartbreak of many a young girl waiting for her “Prince” (if girls still think that way—after all, the 1950s indoctrination has somewhat subsided) or, in other words, to every woman’s failed expectations as part of the maturing process coming to grips with less-than-perfect reality. Men, too, despite their habitual and delusional denial, go through a similar process, which can be surprisingly robust in its negative effects, as witness the psychologically bizarre growth of the Incel movement. The price of failure is worse than failure if it becomes obsession.
This is a very sophisticated story, quite complex and many-layered. Superficially, it can be said to represent the difficulty of establishing a genuine, emotional relationship between the sexes or, indeed, between any individuals locked in the prison of their particular being. However, telling the characters (if they were real) to “lighten up” wouldn’t work in this case. Too many false assumptions have accumulated as a result of their unique physicality to allow for easy optimism. The story is a deep penetration into the dark side of hope and wishful thinking, so brilliantly depressing it deserves some kind of literary award. This may be the stand-out story of the collection. I admire it as a superb piece of psychological interpretation, but wish I hadn’t read it because it makes me sad. Powerful stuff.
A 14-year-old girl is the only female, and the only child, left in a tiny community of wind-torn huts inhabited by twenty elderly men (including her father) utterly addicted to chewing the mind-altering lichen she collects for them on a landscape of obsidian delirium. Sometimes sleds arrive from the cities down the coast, but all their pale, sane pilots want to do is trade for the lichen she harvests. She hates her life with all the passion a young woman old before her time can muster.
Can’t get it out of my head that this settlement is the kind of dystopia an old-fashioned hippie commune turns into after several decades of stoner life. The old guys blather constantly about what rebels they are for having forsaken the rules and regulations of city society but all they do is lie about on cots chewing lichen as their bodies slowly become as desiccated, sharp and brittle as the obsidian pebbles on the beach. I view this as a parable about the consequences of choosing to freeze oneself in time in order to avoid everything life has to offer.
Then again, maybe it is a subtly parody of the problem facing the current generation, namely how to pay for the massive swell of aging baby-boomers about to inundate the nation’s health care facilities. The simplest solution, of course, is not to care for them at all and let them die. I have the impression that’s what politicians are contemplating these days.
So, I am conflicted. On the one hand I feel sorry for the girl and feel her frustration over the near impossible duties circumstance demands she perform, but on the other hand, at my age, I am kin to the purposeless lichen-eaters and thus tend to identify with them as well. The ending of the story leaves me with mixed feelings.
Out On The Photon Runway
Asputcia is a human transformed into a solar sail, just like her brother Hespatus. For four hundred years they and the replenishment/repair station “The Diner” have monitored the Jovian Moon Callisto searching for signs of life. Asputcia is in the habit of going sailing for weeks on end to compose poetry which the Diner greatly appreciates. Hespatus, on the other hand, considers this a dereliction of duty which might get them both in trouble. Now they are both being recalled to the human colony on Mars. Why? Only by tacking homeward bound against the outgoing Photon wind can they find out.
I still remember drawings of cyborgs, humans adapted to live in space without spacesuits, which appeared in magazines like “Life” and “Look” back in the 1950s. Conceptually naïve, they forecast the deliberate evolution of the human race which will surely follow our expansion among the stars. Whereas the living solar sails in this story are quite elegant and slightly amusing in their construction and metabolism. Is this a more accurate depiction of what our future will offer?
Then again, in response to theories about altering the human frame to better suit life in space, one of the early astronauts suggested, in order to put such technological fantasies into the context of reality, “You want to save useless mass? Why not just cut off our legs?” As if to say, you want humans in space? Send humans! Otherwise you wind up with something less than human, or perhaps more than human. Then what?
This is very hard science SF, with a bit of whimsey involved. Imaginative and fascinating. I quite like it.
The New Father
James is ten years old. He lives on a large estate with his distant father and a few robot caretakers. He’s bored. All his brothers, older lads, went off to school and then careers as varied as opera singing and mining methane on Saturn’s Moons. Fortunately, Mother has sent a new brother named Simon to join James and his father. At first James is excited to have a younger brother, but Simon turns out strangely morose. Something seems to be bothering him.
Another hard science story exploring the implications of multiple technologies already well underway in terms of development and practical application but here extrapolated into the realm of what might be sooner than we think. It is a moral fable that speaks to the fact that every technology born of good will and optimism is inevitably abused for immoral purposes sooner or later. Oh, well. ‘Twas ever thus.
The Vassal works in a mine deep beneath the inside surface of the dry, hollow Earth. Now he has been sold to Theophilus of Minos, an odd man who thinks mankind dwells on the outside surface of the planet within a panoply of insubstantial harmonic spheres. More importantly, Theophilus lives beside the ocean, a much more pleasant environment than the hot desert. All is well, except Theophilus is exceedingly nosy about the origins of the Vassal.
A great deal of effort has gone into presenting an early medieval/barbaric society refreshingly alien to modern eyes yet surprisingly consistent in its self-definition to the point of ringing “true.” The reader becomes lost in the details till the actual story creeps in and addresses the central mystery of the plot. The resolution is subtle but elegant. Sometimes, in fiction, a beautifully wrought fantasy world is “betrayed” by an ending that plops it back into the realm of the mundane. Not so, this story. It is an intriguing puzzle complete within itself. A masterpiece of construction and technique.
It is not uncommon for police to be called to the location of a mother giving birth. Increasingly, it turns out, they need to approach the birth scene with guns drawn.
This is an extremely short story (compared to the others in the anthology) which presents an unsettling vision reminiscent of the best of Philip K. Dick’s 1950s-style paranoia, a vision presented without explanation as an everyday problem requiring an everyday solution, except that in this particular instance a different protocol is urgently demanded. A simple but striking horror story expectant parents should avoid.
Lake Of Dreams
George and his agent Myron want to put on a festival for the citizens of Lake of Dreams, one of the nine Lunar cities inhabited mostly by dead people. Unfortunately, the Chancellor of the city, herself dead, shares the common prejudice against the living and has decided to cancel the festival. George and his staff have to be on the next Earth shuttle which, however, won’t be taking off for many hours yet. How to kill time in a city of the dead?
This is a rather brilliant and very original take on a common religious belief, an imaginative interpretation that explores the consequences of what is promised. All very well for God to intervene in human affairs but then what? How does humanity cope? Especially if one is unusually sensitive to the sufferings of others? No wonder George spends all his remaining time on the Moon trying to find a drink. Trouble is, catering to the living is not something the dead willingly do.
I stand in awe of the premise so much so that I am lost in the concept and can’t seem to step back far enough to figure out what sort of metaphor or allegory this be. I suppose it could be saying something about entropy within both civilization and individual lives, or offering a stoical lesson on the futility of fighting against our inevitable fate, or taking a dig at the role of religion somehow or other, but mainly it’s a highly original concept-driven story that I find exhilarating to read even though it is morbid and depressing. Darn good story, in other words.
Phallex is a sex robot who spends most of his time dormant until his mistress activates him. His awake periods are never routine because his mistress has a healthy libido and a vivid imagination. Always something different. But this latest awakening is a little too different. Maybe more than he can cope with.
What used to be pathetically ludicrous is being transformed by modern science into something astonishingly realistic. Add robotics and AI and a brand new battleground between those who see sex as pleasurable and those who view sex is fundamentally evil will soon emerge, with the added complexity of luddite passion in response to dehumanizing technology. What are in effect self-aware dildos will not have universal appeal. They will need to word their resumes carefully. Perhaps they will find it necessary to imitate humans who deny their own sexuality in order to function. Unfortunately, programming may make that a prospect beyond reach. How, then, to adapt?
It is probably obvious I had some difficulty reviewing these stories. I like a straightforward “ripping good yarn.” Most of these stories are lush in both description and concept. This makes for fascinating reading, I am drawn by the striking details and the sheer originality, but am not entirely satisfied that I understand what I read or have divined the author’s intentions. Much of this work is rather surreal. Not for nothing is Hayward sometimes compared to J.G. Ballard.
I have a pretty good library of older science fiction. However, my collection of works by Ballard is rather sparse, just the novels The Crystal World and The Drowned World, plus The Terminal Beach anthology. I remember I found these works beautiful, puzzling, profoundly unsettling and ornately and intricately terrifying. What do I mean by that? Whatever those words mean. My attempt to express both the attraction and repulsion I felt reading Ballard decades ago.
Point is I think Hayward is as good as Ballard or damn near. Certainly one of the most interesting and original writers I have ever read. Even though I am still trying to figure out what the heck he was getting at I highly recommend this book as a “must read.” The virtuosity of the writing and the power of the imagery will linger in your mind.
Check it out at: Broken Sun Broken Moon