OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories: an On Spec 25th Anniversary Retrospective
Published by Tyche Books, Alberta, Canada, 2014, on behalf of the Copper Pig Writing Society.
Editors: Marianne O. Nielsen, Diane L. Walton, Barry Hamond, Ann Marston, Barb Galler-Smith, Jena Snyder, Susan MacGregor, and Robin S. Carson.
Cover art: Herman Lau
NOTE: There are 24 stories in this anthology. That is too many for me to review in one column. I’ll just plunge ahead and review as many as I have room for.
Happy Eating on Ungrath Three – by Jason Kapalka
A standardized franchise equipped with a standardized staff serving standardized food is opened on an isolated backwater planet. Unfortunately the franchise owner decides to experiment with local, fresh produce and non-standard ambience. Stern measures are taken.
Granted, this is a light bit of froth spoofing the fast food industry, but I like it. The hidden horror, it need hardly be pointed out, is that the idiotic policies of the “HappyFood” company are perilously close to the way fast food enterprises are actually run.
Star-Seeing Night – by Alice Major
In the near future a cloud-shrouded Earth guarantees being able to see the moon and the stars (should a rare rent open in the clouds) is a once-in-a-lifetime event, if that. Tonight the sky opens. A young girl, a young woman, and an old woman near death have individual reactions to what they see.
It’s a poem, quite a beautiful poem. Manages to convey the eternal majesty of the heavens despite the fact that not every viewer is lost in awe.
The Reality War – by Robert Boyczuk
Bertwold has won his bid to build a Royal Road. Trouble is, the King prefers magic, and Bertwold prefers machines. Bad enough the “limbs” of the machines have to be disguised as giant human arms in order to placate the King; infinitely worse that some idiot has plopped a magic castle atop the pass the road needs to go through.
Miranda is annoyed her husband Poopsie dropped the castle far short of their destination, but she can hardly blame him. Every act of magic requires the sacrifice of a body part, and Poopsie is running out of limbs. Miranda has survived intact for centuries in her great beauty by virtue of getting her assorted lovers and husbands to work all the magic, but now disgusting human “bugs” are laying siege to the castle and she’s faced with the task of deciding what part of her she is willing to sacrifice in order to destroy the “bugs.”
Obviously you just accept the premise and let the author run with it. That machines are easily defeated by magic, yet magic comes at such a great cost that a “reality war” is really a war of attrition, presents quite a conundrum. Strive too hard for victory and you lose everything. On the other hand, defeat will have the same effect. It doesn’t help that Bertwold and Miranda find each other very attractive. An interesting war. Loads of fun to read.
Casserole Diplomacy – by Fiona Heath
Aliens drop by an isolated Newfoundland house, knocking on the back door which, by island tradition, is reserved for friends. Sixty-year-old widow Edna welcomes them as strangers seeking her company. A couple of Canadian Government agents snoop but Edna drives them off with shrill words. How dare someone question her right to exhibit islander hospitality! Little does Edna know what she has set in motion.
A slow, gentle tale; I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Much depends on the credibility of Edna as a Newfoundlander. Is your typical, somewhat isolated islander normally this phlegmatic in the face of the unusual? Is her life so ordered and ordinary that it encompasses the extraordinary without missing a beat? Or is there some subtle author intrusion here to render the story more credible than it deserves to be? I suppose I’d find the tale more realistic if Edna was offering her hospitality in order to spite her neighbours or as an exercise in gamesmanship, or because she’s hoping the aliens would overthrow the government, but then I’m kinda weird so that’s to be expected. I don’t usually take to slow and gentle in fiction, but I do with this tale. After all, it is rather pleasant to think a homey touch is all that is needed to communicate with aliens.
Jubilee – by Stephen Mills
David is a Presbyterian minister noted for his less-than-inspiring sermons. This may be because his parishioners are equally less-than-inspiring. Ordinary folk all around, which is why the lamb materializing out of the floor during his sermon on turning water into a wine is a bit of a wakeup call. Especially when the lamb turns into a ball of dark slime that grabs Mrs. Miller by the throat to lift her out of her pew. After that, things really start to get strange. Parishioners begin to question what God is REALLY up to. So does David.
What at first appears at first to be a light-hearted Lovecraftian tale evolves into an exploration of the very nature and function of the universe, resulting in a science fictional explanation for the goings-on, and some philosophical questions to boot. An amusing take on the popular what if? question: what if the universe isn’t what we think it is? You don’t want to know.
No Such Thing as an Ex-Con – by Holly Phillips
Emily served time as an accessory to multiple murders. There was no actual evidence she’d been involved, merely the fact she knew exactly what happened and where the bodies were. Nobody believed her when she claimed she had witnessed the horror in her dreams. Now that she’s been released, she finds it is hard to create a new life for herself, especially since the old dreams keep returning. Then the police officer who had handled her case shows up. Turns out he is hoping for new dreams.
The world is filled with fake psychics who fail to deliver on their promises. Therefore, isn’t it logical to assume that anyone who knows everything about a series of murders must be the murderer, or, at least, an accessory to the crimes? In which case, dare a true psychic risk helping the police? Or is the price too great? A conundrum I’ve not seen before, but quite logical when you think about it. Highly original, and a great source of tension. Adds depth to the story.
Closing Time – by Matthew Johnson
Nep Gao has a problem. He has inherited the family restaurant. Of course, in keeping with the spirit of filial tradition, he is hosting the mourning party for free. Trouble is, it has been five days now and his father’s ghost has yet to fade away, being intent on regaling the guests with endless stories. Nep is very much afraid that his dead father is going to ruin him financially, ruin the business. That Nep is suddenly summoned to the Royal Palace to serve the mourning party of a Royal ghost only adds to his troubles. Nep is caught between his duty to his father and his duty to the Emperor.
This is an exploration of social norms outside modern Western tradition. The result is rather refreshingly “different” to someone as ignorant as myself. The fact that ghosts are accepted as part of the reality of social conformity is part of the charm. Another pleasing aspect of the premise is the emphasis on Chinese dishes beyond the usual that sound mouth watering. Makes me hungry. In fact, once I finish this review I think I’ll make myself supper (only Kraft Dinner and Tuna, but for me that’s a dish fit for an Emperor). Best of all, the resolution of Nep’s problem, and the story, is thoroughly elegant and neat. I quite enjoyed this story.
Foster Child – by Catherine MacLeod
Claire had a miscarriage and the traumatic event unhinged her to the point of her husband willingly granting her a divorce. She is just getting used to being alone when a living alien embryo arrives in the mail. Not what she expected. How to cope?
Claire doesn’t think ahead much and tends to live in the moment. Raising an infant, no matter how alien, appeals to her frustrated mothering instincts. As with any young mother, bonding is a rewarding experience composed of myriad new sensations and emotions previously abstract in concept but now heartfelt and sincere. More than ever before, life has become blissful, but for how long? In the back of her mind, nagging thoughts begin to intrude. What if the mailing was an accident? What if someone, or some thing, is searching for the baby? What happens when the baby is found? I was hard put to imagine a satisfactory ending to the story. Fortunately the author was under no such handicap. The resolution surprised me, and pleased me. An unusual take on motherhood. Well done.
More Than Salt – by E.L. Chen
Being a teenage rebel is one thing. Being the daughter of a former teenage rebel quite another. Especially when the only person who tells you the truth is a street corner alcoholic who thinks he is King Lear.
This was written for a Shakespeare-themed issue of On Spec. Shakespeare’s plays deal with the human condition, to put it mildly. Which is why the turmoil in the daughter’s life folds neatly into the plot of King Lear. Shakespeare’s conundrums are timeless. So, too, the difficulty of growing up in a family environment where the mother has yet to grow up because she is obsessed with a past she cannot change. The daughter finds it difficult to respect her mother, difficult to forgive her for being human and imperfect. Difficult to forgive herself, for that matter. Life isn’t fair. There’s no justice. Or is there? Many a teenager would agree that their personal problems are at least as dramatic as Shakespeare’s plays. This story explores both to define parallel motifs that are amusing and meaningful. Shakespeare would approve.
Where Magic Lives – by S.A. Bolich
Ray, who inherited a funeral parlour, must lay to rest a pauper who had been found frozen to death in her apartment. Just another poor, lonely old soul abandoned by life. But her name is Elanor Dancy, and long ago she wrote the children’s books which inspired Ray’s love of life. He is determined there will be one mourner present to see her off. In his estimation she well deserves this final moment of dignity. A personal thank you, as it were.
This story deals with every writer’s worst nightmare, to be forgotten and neglected in one’s old age long after acclaimed books have gone out of print. Success for an author can be ephemeral, lasting not even one lifetime. Perhaps this is why writers keep at it as long as they can. Each new generation coming along is a blank slate that will remain blank if your books are no longer available. Write to earn a living, yes, but also to stay alive in the minds of your readers. Keep writing, and keep getting published, but if the publishers drop you? The public finds you dated? Outmoded? No longer worth reading? What then? This story searches for reasons not to despair. A poignant tale for many a reader, but especially for writers.
The Black Man – by A.M. Arruin
The suburb of Bergamot View consists entirely of woke progressives who thoroughly understand and empathise with the plight of all minorities, and are immensely proud of their just and moral righteousness. Till they realise they have no minorities dwelling in their midst (apart from two east Indian dentists, but they’re very WASP in their life style so of course they don’t count). The community places an ad, seeking a genuine black man to live rent free in a tastefully decorated flat above the Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, the chap who applies is a cliché stereotype, but it would be racist to deny his application, so the community welcomes him into the fold. Trouble is, he doesn’t fit in.
One of the things that used to annoy white supporters of civil rights is that Malcolm X didn’t want their help. In fact he openly opposed their involvement in the movement. At the time, as a Canadian teenager, I simply put it down to the belief system of the Black Muslim sect he belonged to, and cherished his wit and sharp retorts in the interviews I saw on TV. He seemed like a perfectly legit spokesman to me, and a particularly entertaining one at that.
But now I recognise my view of him was indeed simplistic. This story reminds me of the ongoing conflict inherent in civil rights awareness in pasty white guys like me (my nickname among the ethnics where I worked was “Fish-belly” since, being allergic to sunlight, I spend most of my life in the shade and even I can’t believe how white I am). Yes, it is good to support civil rights, equality, and all the rest, but it’s not something to be proud of, it should be taken for granted. After all, to state the obvious is to state the obvious. Silly to be smug about it, even sillier to boast about it. But, or so I’ve been told, what drives minorities batty and makes them grit their teeth is not so much the self-applauding complacency of “woke” whites but the simple fact that (and I’ll be charitable and say “just”) the majority of whites, no matter how well-meaning, tend to automatically assume the minority in question will meet their expectations and definition of what the minority is really like.
In other words, simply put, when a white man talks to a black man all too often the white man is nattering away at his concept of a black man rather than the individual person standing in front of him, which is rather insulting, condescending and, indeed, a form of racism, no matter how progressive and uplifting the motivation. The Black Man dwells at length on this problem, reads like a satire, but is uncomfortably close to the truth. I would call it one of the more relevant and important stories in this anthology.
My recommended solution? Be intellectually lazy like me. I can’t be bothered to figure out what sort of pigeon hole minorities should fit in to and I sure as hell can’t muster the effort to whitesplain to blacks how to be black. I figure that’s their job. A black man or woman knows infinitely more than I do about what it is like to be black in Canada. I figure my responsibility is to listen, not lecture, and above all, let others be themselves without interference from my misconceptions or ignorance. See? Sometimes, being lazy is a virtue. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. Society needs more lazy people. Just saying.
Pizza Night – by Laurie Channer
Lesley and Gloria are two middle-aged lesbians who share a loft apartment. Lesley is on disability. Friday night is their special night, when they sit on a sofa, share a pizza, and watch a rented movie. To make ends meet they also share the apartment with a heavy Metalhead named Timothy, not the most caring and subtle of flatmates. Tonight he is especially intrusive. Being a real jerk.
This is actually a horror story and quite a frightening one. To begin with, however, the story concentrates on the petty details of living with a roommate you can’t stand. Suddenly delusion and denial are they keys to contentment, but a hyper-acute sensitivity to the slightest noises and actions of the annoying third party counteract your lust for normalcy. There’s no escape. This is why I have never believed in shared accommodation. The lack of privacy would be a nightmare. I must have my own space. This is why I don’t share my hotel room at conventions. I need a space I can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed.
So, to sum up, just the set-up section of this story is terrifying to me. I understand perfectly the endless rationalizations the point-of-view character is going through. I identify with her completely. Consequently, what happens when the situation escalates into a genuine horror story freaks me out considerably. The story was well set-up. I was well set-up. One thing for sure, no matter how desperate my personal circumstances may become, I am never, ever going to answer a “roommate wanted” ad. I guarantee it.
Boy’s Night Out – by Rob Hunter
Jim and Sally are newcomers at the gated community of Sur la Mer. Of course they’ve been thoroughly vetted. Otherwise they would never have been allowed to buy in. But Sid and Hillary have been assigned the task of inviting them over to show them the ropes. Buying in is one thing. Fitting in is far more important.
At first this seems to be a satire on the phenomenon of suburban pretension. Gradually it becomes clear there is something different about the boys, something they have in common which is the wives’ cross to bear. The fence isn’t there to keep people out. It’s to prevent the husbands from wreaking havoc elsewhere whenever they feel the urge for a joint night out without their wives. Think of it as a tool for enabling the girls to share some of the fun without attracting the attention of human authorities.
The story is a satire on gated, suburban life. But it is much more than that. It is also a thoughtful, carefully worked out description of the domestic life of a certain type of supernatural being. There’s a price to be paid for happiness, of course, there always is. But if it allows you to watch sports on TV or hold barbecue parties in peace without being bothered by irate mobs, why not go for it? Quite a bit of wry humour in this, a logical yet innovative exploration of the inevitable consequences of a certain state of being. Quietly amusing. I like it.
NOTE: I’ve run out of space. Apologies to the contributors I did not review. Readers will just have to take my word for it that the remaining stories are worth reading.
As usual, I was self-indulgent and allowed a story or two to trigger mini-essays, which is just my way of saying that the quality of fiction On Spec offers frequently makes the reader think about stuff. That be a good thing in my books.
This anthology is representative of the many varieties of the SF&F genre found in the pages of On Spec Magazine. Always worth reading. Highly recommended. Read any issue and you’ll vow not to miss the rest. Bit of an addiction, actually. On Spec is that good.
Check it out at: < Casserole Diplomacy >