OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
And The Angels Sang – by Lorina Stephens
Published in 2008 by Five Rivers Chapmanry, Neustadt, Ontario, Canada.
Cover Art: “The Watcher” by Jeff Minkevics.
Note: – All stories are by Lorina Stephens
And The Angels Sang
Father Jean de Brébeuf is being tortured to death by Iroquois. His situational awareness is intense. His thoughts complex. Martyrdom no easy task.
Historically, Father Brébeuf was martyred on 16th March, 1649. He was canonized as a Saint in 1930. Unless you are Catholic, and in particular a Quebec Catholic, it is probably difficult to relate to his motivation and the intensity of his religious passion. Very alien, is the good Father to much modern thinking. As an atheist, I am presumably unable to empathise with his plight and, if anything, award kudos to the Iroquois for resisting the Imperialist invader. In truth, I have enough empathetic imagination to sympathise with both. Probably you do, too.
Lorina does a masterful job of summarising a lifetime of devotion to the cause in the final, frantic thoughts of Father Brébeuf. Delirious, near out of his mind with pain, he imagines the forest grove around him the pillars of a glorious cathedral. Similar fantasies transform his horrific death into a mystical rite of passage toward paradise. What strikes atheists like myself as an idiotic belief system here becomes very real, the key to salvation and transcendence, and his pity for his tormentors, utterly convincing. It takes exceptionally good writing to put you deep into the mind and thoughts of so alien a being.
Well, alien to me, anyway. But Lorina conveys to me the essential honesty, the reality, of this historical event in a world so distant it might as well be on an alien planet. Judging history with politically correct hindsight is emotionally barren. Viewing the past through the eyes and mind of someone who experienced it, courtesy of the Lorina’s talent, is a heart-wrenching revelation. Powerful story.
The man and woman have known each other since childhood. They must be very similar, as both are now 22nd century anthropologists who have gone back in time to study the early Inuit. She loves him like a brother. He loves her like … well, he’s very frustrated. The Inuit culture’s habit of offering casual promiscuity to guests isn’t helping.
As a child I thrilled to old issues of National Geographic Magazine (from before my time) extolling the virtues of Admiral Peary’s discovery of the North Pole (actually he didn’t make it that far) and similar voyages of arctic exploration. Little did I know that arctic explorers were in the habit of keeping warm by fornicating their way across the frozen North. Peary alone, though respectably married, fathered at least two children with an Inuit woman named Alakhsingwah. But then, to be fair, during the first 23 years of his marriage he spent only 3 with his family. A busy man, it seems.
Point is, the way things used to be (I doubt this is way things are now, what with missionaries and satellite TV), it was a cultural trait among the Inuit to offer wives and daughters to guests (not every guest, just worthy ones). A way of sharing the gene pool among isolated communities, I guess. Past arctic explorers took advantage of that generosity. This story suggests that future, time-travelling explorers would grapple with similar temptations.
Superficially, a story of forbidden romance between two people who grew up close enough to be siblings, except that they aren’t. Throw in a cultural clash from an “untouched” tribe with a less uptight point of view, and moral conundrums turn into a kaleidoscope of possibilities, confusing but attractive. I like this story because it implies that no matter where our explorers go in time or space, they will drag their baggage with them. There’s a reason why “The Prime Directive” in Star Trek is law. Human nature dictates it will constantly be violated. Explorers, scientists, and anthropologists of the future … hah! Moral degenerates the lot of them, because human. This story points that out in a sad and memorable way.
Have a Nice Day and Pass the Arsenic
Angie Nealie is a Lunar Base traffic controller, somewhat distracted because of her miscarriage and the fact she will not be permitted to get pregnant again. She does a poor job guiding in a deep-space generation-ship freighter. She may lose her job as a result. To make matters worse, the Captain of the freighter takes a personal interest in her.
At first this seems like a standard pregnancy-forbidden theme to do with a nasty future where even the most basic human instincts are rigidly controlled. But that falls away before a motherhood problem entirely dependent on a strikingly original consequence of generation-ship culture. Takes the concept of motherhood to a whole new level. Inventing a brand new problem is futurism at its best. Motherhood never going to be easy, it seems.
She is one of the rare 2% of the population, genetically programmed to be caring and compassionate, her nature augmented by years of training in meditation and communion with others. Trouble is, like her peers, she is merely a drain to swirl down all manner of human suffering. A valued and much sought-after protector, she has no protector of her own. No wonder she is hiding in a closet.
This story resonates with me. My mother was a protector, always listening to others spill their problems, always offering sage advice, and always burying her own problems deep within herself. In effect, sacrificing her wellbeing for the benefit of others. So I know the type exists. It is perfectly credible to me a State might harness the innate abilities of “Protectors” in order to placate the worries and pains of society at large, albeit at hideous emotional cost for the gifted individuals so cursed. This is a role quite in contrast with being a Guru, and far more painful. Helping others is generally perceived as a path to sainthood. It’s not easy to be a saint. It often comes with spectacular penalties. A sad, emotional story, but thought-provoking. Unusual.
Brian is a Geologist working in the Mackenzie basin. Foolishly, perhaps, he brought his wife, Laura, and their young daughter, Brenley, to live with him. An isolated camp in the middle of winter is no place for family. No wonder Laura drifted into insanity, conjuring up an imaginary friend Ela. Pity Laura and Brenley died in a landslide. Now there’s only Brian and Ela.
A ghost story of sorts, or an exploration of cabin-fever insanity. In truth it is about the meaning of family, of longing for what you once took for granted but can no longer have. How do you cope with such loss? Rationalization doesn’t seem to work when your loss can talk back at you, dispute your assertions, and ridicule your emotions. Do you give in to delusion? Or embrace your pain? How the heck do you handle going insane without losing your mind over it? Interesting questions. Difficult to imagine suitable answers. Lorina is very good at posing philosophical questions with meaning and depth far greater than the generic pop psychology of modern times. Up to you to come up with equally profound answers.
Peter is a professional photographer. He and his wife kay, and their children Chris and Meagan, are running in terror for their lives. The terrorists have attacked, again. Which terrorists? Doesn’t matter. So many groups are active. Which weapons? Doesn’t matter, they use so many. The important thing is to beat the mob to the basement of the mall before the shelter seals shut. Trouble is they are in the middle of the mob and as panic-stricken as everyone else.
Being a still photographer, Peter tends to see everything in freeze-frame snapshots. His constantly “strobing” attention to detail lends enormous verisimilitude (I confess, I just wanted to use that big word ‘cause I like big words) to the happenings in this story. Combined with the pressure of frantic, no-time-to-waste desperation the story becomes vividly dramatic, even cinematic in character. To what end?
In a way, this is a “snapshot” essay, like a series of photographs in an art gallery, of the horrors of war, or, more specifically, the horror of being trapped in a violent situation where it is quite probable absolutely nothing you do will save yourself and your family. Too often, especially in movies, war is treated as a sport, as a contest between two teams in which the best, or at least the bravest, team will win.
The hell it is. Either you are about to die or about to live. Often whatever you are doing at the time makes no difference. The best illustration I can think of is Spike Milligan’s five volume WWII memoirs. As a forward Gunner Bombardier he was often bombed and shelled, but never took it personally, always assumed he’d survive. Then, as revealed in the 4th volume, Mussolini, His Part in My Downfall, he was doing Bombardier stuff on an Italian hillside when German mortar shells began to rain down. Spike took cover. The mortar shells “walked” toward him. He jumped up and ran to another hiding place. Same result. Suddenly he realised this was no generic map-based bombardment. The German forward-observers could see him. No matter which bush or boulder he hid behind, they could still see him. It was personal. They were out to get him. They wanted him dead. Him specifically. His brain coped the only way it could. He went insane. By luck he managed to flee without getting killed, but the experience damaged his mind for the remainder of his life. It became the basis of his trademark irreverent, don’t-give-a-damn style of humour but also unleashed many a night-terror and subsequent mental breakdown. Yet he was one of the lucky ones. At least he survived the war.
There’s a plot of sorts, but this story is mostly a vignette exploring the emotions of the trapped. I have several times been on the verge of being killed but either it was happening so fast or the situation was so absurd I simply refused to believe it, and thus was able to distance myself from the event as it happened, though I did automatically react appropriately, thank goodness. Had I known for certain I was about to die I might have chosen Spike Milligan’s example. Would I? I hope never to find out. The powerful emotional turmoil of this story will make you ponder the same conundrum.
Ayrin Johnson is a shipwrecked alien with a guilty conscience. He had inadvertently caused his spaceship to crash, killing the rest of the crew. Somehow he survived. In an age when most athletes are bio-engineered his Canadian rescuers chose him for their Olympic team. Somehow he frequently wins. No one can figure out how. Nor understand his true motivation.
Evidently in this vision of the future Olympic sports are taken extremely seriously. Assassinations of athletes even as they compete are common. Some of his competitors, the product of scientific ingenuity, are scarcely human. Nothing matters except winning. Ayrin couldn’t agree more, for reasons entirely his own.
This story explores both the limitless potential of human obsession with competition and the finite limits of human evolution or, to put it another way, how the aliens we will someday seek to exploit may be perpetually superior to us no matter how highly we think of ourselves. This “master race” business among humans is just an idiotic exercise in ego and rationalization. But what if the aliens we meet actually are a Master Race? Well, if that turns out to be true, we may, as in this story, be in for a bit of a surprise. Evolution is as evolution does. In this story the alien has a head start of several million years. Quite the advantage. The other runners have no idea.
Melina sings to herself as she lies in bed surrounded by her stuffed toys. She sings about the darkies who emerge from the corners of her room in the purple twilight. Elegant shadows, mostly, and friendly. But one is not friendly. One is terrifying. Her Uncle Julius. Melina sings to escape. Night after night.
A sorrowful, disturbing tale about child abuse, and how the mind of a child might struggle to cope using fantasy or wish fulfillment. Similar to the kind of trap war springs, this too can mark a person for life. Yet, in this situation, fantasy can provide “the safe place” that is the key to sanity, and perhaps, hope. A kind of ghost story, too, in that everyone lives with the ghosts of their past, regrets and matters suppressed. There’s the “let it all hang out” theory of cure based on the assumption trauma exposed is trauma diminished. I’ve never quite bought into that. I’m a tad more Jungian, maybe, tempted to let reality slide sideways into a harmless, comforting conceit rather than dwell on things which can’t be changed. That’s my approach.
In any case, once again Lorina takes you into the mind and experience of a character to the point of visceral identification so striking you are compelled not only to empathise and sympathise but also to wonder how you would respond in a similar situation. This be a running theme in her fiction, it seems to me. Not for the faint-hearted.
A Case of Time
Petra killed her father. He deserved it. Petra killed her lover, Sabina. She deserved it. Now she’s killing Sabina again, or is it the first time? Is she living her memory? Or experiencing Déjà vu as she murders? Petra hates the modern justice system with a passion.
This future “modern” justice has the ability to take the defendant back to the scene of the crime as it actually happens. Guilt or innocence is rendered crystal clear. The intent is compassionate. The guilty will have their memories erased and be given new lives, new bodies, and new memories. But what if the process is imperfect? What if erased memories are merely submerged and capable of rising to consciousness again to distort reality and drive people insane?
Everyone has a theory about what causes crime and how to deal with it. Here Lorina postulates the “perfect” solution, except that it isn’t perfect, it’s as flawed as we are. And that’s the fundamental problem of being human. Humans are too imperfect to conceive of a practical “perfect” solution to our imperfections.
Here Lorina is possibly suggesting that any and every form of justice can only go so far and anyone “trapped” in its blind workings is liable to be driven out of their mind with frustration and the “unfairness” of it all regardless of guilt or innocence. Justice systems are probably the most Kafkaesque form of bureaucracy ever invented. People generally hate getting involved. There are reasons. Again Lorina raises questions readers will find difficult to answer. A fun challenge, though. Possibly one with useful consequences.
Oh, and just in case this helps. Kafka never meant his fiction to be taken seriously. His friends would roar with laughter whenever he read his latest work to them. Something to bear in mind next time you go to court. Might keep you on an even keel.
Amaru is a great sculptor, and an even better contract killer. She works for Jadis, an unusually venal despoiler of the environment. He pays well, which is why she had no qualms over her last hit, Erdoes, who had also been her lover. Unfortunately, her next hit was shaping up to be the most challenging and dangerous of them all.
It is difficult to work up any sympathy for Amaru, who really isn’t any less innocent than her employer. On the other hand, she loves what little natural environment is left, as does Jadis, but for different reasons. Much to her surprise, fulfilling his will shifts imperceptibly to thwarting his will. That Lorina combines the technology of matter transporters and time travel in the story makes Amaru’s intentions and problems all the more exhilarating for the reader. One of those stories where you can’t wait to see what happens next.
The opening description of Amaru’s artistic talent reminded me of the Roger Corman Beatnik comedy Bucket of Blood. I don’t think any homage was intended, more a matter of mere coincidence. In this case, with the very opposite effect in mind, a demonstration of Amaru’s cold-blooded professionalism. But for a hired serial killer, she’s actually quite decent.
I don’t think the purpose of this tale is to raise deep philosophical questions, but simply to provide a ripping good yarn on the basis of clever technological extrapolation, or at least its implications. The moral of the story is that it is not nice to kill off mother nature, but really, it’s primary purpose is to entertain. Lorina does this well.
Note: I have reviewed about half the stories in this collection. Rest assured the remainder are just as fascinating.
Is this “New Wave” science Fiction? “Feminist” fantasy? The very opposite of the kind of concept-driven pulp fiction I prefer?
Sad puppies need not fear, here. Yes, the majority of protagonists are female. Yes, the characters are emotional, sometimes deeply and overwhelmingly emotional. Yes, in most cases you are “forced” to empathise with their concerns and problems. Oh, the horror, the horror.
But in every case the approach is innovative, the underlying concept original, strong, and powerful. Above all feats of intelligence and imagination that carry futuristic extrapolation to new heights of meaning and complexity. Really good science fiction and fantasy, in other words. Well worth reading. Masterful writing.
Check it out at: < And the Angels Sang >
By the way, for years Lorina Stephens ran Five Rivers Publishing, a thoroughly reputable company renowned for its honest and excellent dealings with authors. Many wonderful books published, including some Canadian SF&F classics. I’ve reviewed a number of them in previous Clubhouse columns. Alas, circumstances beyond her control have forced her to revert all rights to the authors and shut down the business. However, her works remain available for purchase at her website. This column is my effort to bring attention to the quality of her work. I hope I succeeded.