OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Neo-opsis Magazine – Issue #30, November 2019
Published out of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Editor: Karl Johanson. Assistant Editor and Art Director: Stephanie Johanson.
Cover: Portals by Karl Johanson
Scrapheap Destiny – by Andrew Knighton
Destiny is one of those planets where the debris of galactic civilization is dumped. A small population of fourth generation colonists repair and recycle what they can, maintaining a hardscrabble but fiercely independent lifestyle largely separate from Galactic politics and concerns. Until now. The off-world Wo Chin Corporation has been licensed to build and operate an industrial scale salvage facility, in effect converting the entire planet into a company town. Eve Lester, a young reporter who grew up on Destiny and then left to pursue a more exciting future, has been hired by Wo Chin Corp. to document the reactions of the locals.
This story threw me at first. The author is British, yet the attitudes and slang of the colonists seem working class American. There is very little futurism present. Oh, there are throwaways like mental dictation and handy camera drones, but the overall ambience is so old-fashioned I couldn’t help but wonder why the author chose to go that route.
Reduced to its essence, this a conflict between an insignificant planet (country) about to be exploited to the detriment of its inhabitants by an off-world (foreign) corporation. The British set the pattern. I believe it was FDR who famously remarked “The Germans are murderers but the British are thieves.” Then the Americans leaped ahead of the British, but now China, with its “Modern Silk Road” project, a highly aggressive investment strategy by corporations acting on the instructions of the Chinese Government, appears to be catching up.
Given the above context everything clicks into place. Knighton is following a thoroughly British tradition. It struck H.G. Wells that the British scramble to conquer numerous West African kingdoms (such as the Asante Empire) hit those indigenous peoples with incomprehensible force, like a Martian invasion would impact Victorian England. He wrote War of the Worlds to give the British public a taste of their own medicine, to wake them up to the evil being done in their name. Went right over their heads. They just saw it as an absolutely imperial ripping good yarn. Which it is. But it was always meant to be more than that.
Here the Chinese are the Martians. The big difference is that the Chinese world domination isn’t hypothetical, but potentially very real, perhaps inevitable. The Chinese have been saying in official publications for some decades that their goal is to replace the U.S.A. as the number one superpower by the year 2050. Some experts believe this transfer of the Mandate of Heaven from Washington to Beijing is ahead of schedule. Explains why Xi Jinping smiles a lot these days.
Consequently, I think it was clever of Knighton to use near-cliché American-style colonists to represent the underdog. Drives the message home. Most readers may well wind up being the underdog class of the future. I’m impressed. The story may seem old-fashioned, but it couldn’t be more topical. This is SF at its subversive best, an urgent warning of what may come if trends continue.
The Ninth Iteration – by Celeste A. Peters
Oscar Anderson is a typical computer nerd in the not-too-distant future. He lives in a one-room condo buried in empty food cartons. He is quite pleased when his Holo-pad produces more than the usual three-dimensional head to talk to. Not so pleased when his new App turns out to be more interactive than he anticipated.
I am colossally and abysmally ignorant about computers and the internet even though I’ve owned home computers of one sort or another continuously since 1980. Fortunately, this story hinges on a broad general knowledge sufficient to accept the premise as plausible without the necessity of diving into specific details. Granted, the basic idea is impossible, but traditionally every SF story is allowed one basic baffle-gab concept to carry the plot so nothing irrational beyond the norm in this tale.
There is an aspect of the irrational present which adds to the emotional appeal, though. I can’t help but see Oscar’s tribulations as reflections of a nerd’s worst sub-conscious fears having to do with a deep, underlying sense of vulnerability. Sure, nerds are connected to the “real” world only through their computer, but when you think about it, the whole bloody world is focused on them. Kind of like a gigantic funnel with the sharp end pointing at their eyeballs. What with modern tech and all spending a lot of time in front of your laptop is like strapping yourself to a chair inches away from the telescreen displaying Big Brother. You think you’re watching it, but in fact …
Not to get too serious. There’s a delightful sense of frustration and paranoia which reminds me of some of the best of Robert Sheckley’s novels. I’d explain why but that would give away too much about the story. I’ll just say I see some parallel processing going on.
Oh, yeah, right. Maybe I should have used the term “Geek” rather than “Nerd.” I told you I’m not too good on technical details. Generalities R us.
Victory by Water – by Jocelyn Scott
The Kingdom of Macaria has been at war with the Empire of Cartagenia for ages. Trouble is the latter is vastly more powerful to the point where frequent raids to carry off women from outlying villages appears to be the most popular sport among Cartagenians. Occasionally the enemy mount major expeditions as if determined to crush Macaria once and for all. Experienced commanders capable of countering this threat are few in number. After all, the resources of a small Kingdom don’t amount to much.
I remind you I am somewhat literal-minded by nature. So when I read of Cartago and the Cartagenian Empire I immediately thought in terms of Carthage and the Carthaginian Empire. Okay, I said to myself, many a galactic empire is obviously based on the Romans, why not a fantasy based on the Carthaginians? However, references to church bells, nuns, and military ranks like Colonel and Major soon revealed I was mistaken. This is a non-specific fantasy world based on a somewhat late-medieval level of technology.
Nevertheless, the classicist in me wasn’t entirely disappointed. The essential conundrum of the story is roughly the same as that which faced Vercassivellaunus at the siege of Alesia (you’ll have to read the story to figure out what I’m hinting at, and even then the reference may be too obscure.) The gist of it is how do you defeat a well-organized enemy armed with superior technology? Simple answer: better tactics which the Cartagenians, in their smug complacency, hadn’t even conceived. The resolution is quite ingenious.
Lesson to be learned? Never, ever, underestimate your enemy. Always a mistake.
Big, Bad Ships from Outer Space – by Jason Lairamore
A retired Star Fleet Commander, travelling on a warship escorting a formation of merchant freighters, is a bit disconcerted to discover the bridge staff has vanished and large, black ships crewed by a previously unknown race of aliens are on the verge of capturing the entire convoy. Fortunately, he manages to contact the enemy commander. Unfortunately, this does little to resolve the situation.
Back in 1945 the Murray Leinster story First Contact depicted an encounter between a human-manned spacecraft and an alien-crewed spacecraft. Neither dared leave or reveal much about itself for fear the “other” would learn where the home world was located and attack it. Yet if they attempted to destroy each other it might well trigger an interstellar war that could lead to genocide. Quite the stalemate. Leinster came up with a clever solution.
This is something of a variation on the Leinster story. It is not as long or as complex, or as serious. The aliens, for instance, are somewhat Lovecraftian though comically so. No less than two problems demand resolution and one is solved more resolutely than the other, though much depends on whether certain assumptions are correct or mere wishful thinking. I guess the lesson here is that even with the best of intentions on both sides diplomacy is a lot harder than you might think or prefer to believe.
Overall this amusing story reinforces my belief it would be a darned good idea NOT to contact an alien species of equal or superior intelligence. Cute blobs that go “blurp” when we poke them are about the limit of what we humans can handle safely.
Modigliani Paints the World – by Hayden Trenholm
A previously human AI is disconcerted to learn that a compatriot decided to download into an animal lifeform without leaving a backup in case of accidental termination. The lifeform is somehow dead, the AI occupying it no longer in existence. Fearful the fate of the “dead” AI could be an infectious form of suicide putting the few remaining AIs at risk, the point-of-view AI goes human (while carefully leaving a backup) to investigate.
This story takes the fear of “Skynet” or AI replacing humanity into the far future. In fact, according to the story, much of humanity volunteers to upload into AI format so that it is not as if AI replaces humanity, but that humanity chooses to transcend its meat format to become intelligence within the machine. Still human mentally, though, at least for a while. But there is a divide between those who upload and those who remain short-lived meat. The former may change over time, if only through programming errors, but the latter will evolve. Will the divide become greater or lesser?
In the world of the distant far future, tens of thousands of years hence, the few remaining machine-mind people, ageless but perhaps lacking in original thinking for thousands of years, confront what humanity has evolved into. Is this to their mutual advantage? Or will it prove fatal to one or the other life form, or perhaps to both? Is communication even possible? In a sense another variant of Leinster’s First Contact story. Have the two forms of human being drifted so far apart as to be unspeakably alien to each other? What can go wrong? What can go right?
A good deal of AI SF, or SF dealing with human mentality transferred into the machine, is stuck at The Terminator stage, describing more or less instant conflict as one seeks to exterminate the other. Where this story stands out is its quest to discover what could possibly remain human in humanity, whatever form humanity takes, in the endless centuries ahead. Perhaps the ultimate conundrum humanity faces, should we survive as a species that far into the future.
This is a well-written, evocative, and poignant story. I like it a lot.
One Day in Tom’s Life, with Ice Cream – by Craig Bowlsby
Tom Cruise goes to meet Cameron Diaz for lunch at a Hollywood restaurant. They’re all out of ice cream. He’s very disappointed.
Actually, the conflict in the story is a good deal more complicated than that. This is a wonderful “what if?” story wherein a recent technological innovation in special effects is combined with a common medical procedure to such perfection that the cost of the operation is brought down to the wherewithal of the average person and the resulting fad causes endless confusion and makes life very messy, especially for actors.
In sum, a delightful look at the abuse of a new technology as soon as it becomes readily available. Could it ever happen? Absolutely. It already exists as a psychological phenomenon. Were it to become physical and cheap, the practice would spread like wildfire. Mind you, it would hinder government control of the populace, so there’s every chance the technology would be supressed, but for how long? I figure it would be in such demand there’d be clandestine clinics everywhere. As fads go it would be popular but extremely tiresome, at least to curmudgeons like me who would find it highly annoying.
I found this story quite entertaining. Not just because of the message. There’s an element of parody regarding a typical Hollywood-style working lunch. Great fun.
WRASSE – by Catherine Girczyc
The Wrasse are a very difficult alien species to get to know. They are good at hiding, for one thing. And they can be devastatingly hostile. But one exploration ship, and one exploration ship only, they are willing to tolerate, providing the crew are willing to make fools of themselves sufficient to amuse and impress the Wrasse. Unfortunately, the new Captain doesn’t believe in being anything less than dignified. This puts the whole operation at risk.
The Captain’s name is Jimmy. I consider him to be a parody of Jim Kirk from Star Trek, and the story a “What if?” look at what might happen if that type of Starship Captain were to meet up with a genuinely alien species. Yet another variant of First Contact in this issue it seems. In this case the Wrasse are so alien that even the universal translator can offer only the three best interpretations as opposed to a definitive translation. The crew don’t mind. They enjoy trying to appease the Wrasse. It demands a great deal of originality on their part. So, they’re not happy with their literal-minded, practical, twit of a Captain. But he is the Captain. What can they do? More importantly, what will the Wrasse do?
I quite enjoyed this story. There’s a great deal of humour present, as befits a parody, but at the same time I found the alien mentality fascinating. They seem quite plausible. Who knows? Herein may lie the key to our survival as a species should we ever run into a race whose powers we cannot comprehend let alone defeat. If we strike them as amusing maybe they will keep us around just for laughs. Being serious and dignified could well prove fatal under such circumstances. Perhaps knowing how to loosen up a little is a survival trait. Something to contemplate.
Neo-opsis is a phenomenally well put-together zine by just two people, Karl and Stephanie. An affair of the heart, it is a fannish construct writ large as a professional product, with a little help from Robert Runté and John W. Herbert who each contribute a review. Karl writes an editorial on the importance of science fiction and throws in yet another article in the series A Walk Through the Periodic Chart, in this case describing the assorted Heroes and Villains named after the elements. He also points out numerous logic flaws in the Star Trek Discovery TV series. Add assorted SF news items, a healthy letter column, and two very nice sketches by Stephanie, and there’s a heck of a lot of interesting stuff to peruse.
One reason I like Neo-opsis and look forward to every issue is the fact I am primarily a science fiction fan. Most of the contents of a typical issue consists of the form of science fiction I like best, namely concept-driven SF albeit with characterization and plot arcs and all the rest, but mainly, really nifty ideas underlying each and every story. Neo-opsis always a treat for me.
One slightly bizarre thing. Karl and Stephanie were kind enough to mail me a paper review copy. I only just now noticed the list of the contributors on the cover is the list from the previous issue, yet the cover shown on the web site depicts the correct list. I rather hope my copy is just a fluke that was corrected before the entire print run was run off. I made a good quality scan of my copy’s front cover to go with this article, but that doesn’t seem right. So I elected to show the cover based on the website thumbprint, which is much lower in quality. At least it shows the full wrap-around image. I suspect Karl has endless fun creating covers for Neo-opsis.
I have endless fun reading Neo-opsis, till I get to the last page. Then it becomes a waiting game till the next issue comes out. Well worth waiting for, I tells you.
Find this issue at < Neo-opsis #30 >