CLUBHOUSE: Review: Speculative North Magazine #1

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

SPECULATIVE NORTH issue #1, Vol. 1 No. 1. May, 2020.

Publisher: TDotSpec Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Editors: Lead Editor David F. Shultz; Fiction Editor and Managing Editor Don Miasek; Poetry Editor A.M. Todd.

Cover Art: Eran Fowler.

FICTION:

Kariku’s Ocean – by A.B. Eyers

Premise:

Balu leaves personal problems behind when he flees the mud flat planet Kormarant to live on and within the frozen world Jao. Life is no better there. Dare he return home?

Review:  

This is a tale of two worlds; the one dominated by mudflats and the other barren rock covered in snow. Is this the traditional bit of unrealism found in SF where planets have but a single climate and just one ecosystem? No. It’s just that only the regions where humans live are described. The sad reality is that, miserable though these locations be, they represent the best of what each planet has to offer. If you are born a colonist on a veritable Garden of Eden planet, you lucked out. Here, Kormarant and Jao each possess but a single resource for which there is an off-world demand, but otherwise life sucks. On Kormarant, for instance, the only source of protein is a beetle-like creature. Taste is irrelevant. What matters is the sheer monotony of the diet. Mankind spreading among the stars is not going to be as much fun as people think.

Both worlds are interesting. The societies attempting to function on each are even more interesting. But the true focus of the story is a boy’s love for a more mature girl who is passionately attracted to his older brother. It’s a tale of repressed passion, and jealousy, with an enormous potential for heart-break. It’s all about human instincts and emotions we’ve carried with us as long as we’ve been human and will carry with us when we explore the Galaxy in ages to come.

Normally, when it comes to SF in general, the little kid in me prefers to avoid the mushy stuff. Love and passion smack too much of mundane reality for my tastes. Anybody can fall in love. What I seek are characters who know how to interpret mysterious alien artifacts. I don’t care about their sex lives. Unless the alien artifact has a sex life. Then it gets interesting. But I digress.

What I like about this story is how seamlessly the economy, the environment, the social adaptations, and human emotions are woven together all of a piece. Each element is dependent on all the others. This is not a case of a “love plot” stuck on an arbitrary background of SF elements. Instead, it is a masterful exercise in world building, a holistic exploration of the consequences of space colonization, and, by way of a bonus, an expansive and original take on a science fiction  theme which powerfully impacts the reader. I’m impressed.

Tokyo Burning – by Nathan Batchelor

Premise:  

The British are raining poisonous snails on Japan. The Master Poisoner, Japanese yet an agent for Britain, is intent on staying alive long enough to assassinate her target, the Yakuza Chief known as the Black Beetle.

Review:

This is an alternate history fantasy. The snails are man-sized, able to spray extremely corrosive poison and, without their shells, also capable of donning uniforms and helmets in a grotesque parody of human soldiers. In that mode they like to operate flamethrowers, an effective means of destroying typically Japanese lightly-built wood and paper buildings. These creatures were not created in British labs. They are a national entity of unspecified location with which the British Empire has formed a military alliance in order to conquer Japan.

A superb B-movie concept, easily filmable (if you have the appropriate budget), but rather different. Normally, in most B-movies, nations combine their efforts to crush whatever the monster threat is. Here, one nation of humans works with a nation of inhuman monsters to destroy another human nation. A film version absolutely demands a scene where British and Snail diplomats negotiate their treaty. I’d pay to see that.

In this story the background international (interspecies?) political shenanigans are taken for granted. All that counts is the actual invasion and the Master Poisoner’s monomaniacal concentration on fulfilling her mission. Pretty much the way it is for any spy in any war. In this case the spy is a homegrown traitor who nevertheless loves her country, and whose target is a genuine patriot who is also a master criminal. Quite a confusion of motives here. Makes it difficult for the Master Poisoner to carry out her mission. The presence of giant snails on a rampage assists her not at all.

I wouldn’t call this a “realistic” alternate history, but it’s great fun, highly entertaining, full of nifty scenes and predicaments, and overall well worth accepting the premise in order to get maximum enjoyment out of it. I like it.

It’s Always Ice Time in the D.H.L. – by Gregg Chamberlain

Premise:

All the hockey players in Heaven are distraught over the cancellation of the Stanley Cup season because of Covid 19. Likewise the hockey players in Hell. Leave it to the Devil to suggest the two groups form their own league and play hockey the way it was meant to be played.

Review:

Think of all the old time greats who have departed the mortal coil. Imagine the dream teams assembled from their ranks. Location is no problem. Things have gotten so bad on Earth Hell has frozen over. The D.H.L. (Divine Hockey League? Damned Hockey League? Take your pick.) plays every game in Hell. Lord Stanley himself drops the first puck. The two Mary’s keep score. And so on.

This is great fun, especially for Canadian hockey fans. In fact, it’s quite wonderful. Practically a patriotic duty to read this story. Gregg is noted for his humorous tales but I think this may well be the best one he’s ever written. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is frequently anthologised in the years to come. A classic, classic Canadian fantasy. I don’t even care for hockey all that much and yet I really love this story. It pushes all the right buttons for a hockey fan. To anyone who knows anything at all about the history of hockey this is a treat, a pleasure to read. I’m blown away. I really enjoyed this one.

Mona Luna – by Christine Ladd

Premise:

Duffy is a down and out veteran with problems. Among other things he’s become obsessed with the woman who works at the shelter. What if she notices?

Review:

Mona Luna perhaps Mona Lisa, the beautiful woman with the enigmatic smile and unknown motives? Luna because only leaves the shelter once the sun has gone down? Possibly I am reaching for more than is intended. Point is Duffy is obsessed with this woman and wants to meet her when no one else is around. Not so much to take advantage as to establish a one-on-one relationship without outside interference. Much as a shy person can only ask for a date when there are no witnesses, though that’s not what Duffy has in mind. Basically, he wants to find out more about her. So does the reader.

This is an exercise in the subtle psychology of human interaction in both its best and worst aspects. Can’t say more without giving away too much, but the reason this quiet horror story works is because it rings true, at least on an emotional level. The premise is one thing. You might choose to reject it, intellectually. But the process of emotional manipulation, though exaggerated, is entirely credible. A mature story. Thought provoking.

Citizen of the Galaxy – by Evan Dicken

Premise:

Mizoguchi teaches a class of fellow humans in Tokyo. He is upset when informed the Sapient Milieu has determined courses in human  history are too parochial to be permitted. Plus, his daughter is ignoring his guidance. Now life sucks even worse than usual.

Review:

A standard cliché in science fiction is the human race earning (or being denied) the right to join the Galactic Union (Federation, Commonwealth, Hive, etc.) of intelligent species. Always with the assumption that paradise, or at least a golden age, will ensue. Seldom are the implications or repercussions of membership explored. Usually there’s a hint of our being mentored to a superior state of being. But what if we are simply overrun? What if the human race collectively becomes nothing more than a quaint tourist attraction?

In this story a comparison is made with the American occupation of Japan. Just a bare hint, but it raises questions. Ultimately it can be argued Japan benefited from abandoning militarist Imperialism and adopting economic determinism. This is a particularly interesting case study because it was America that forced Japan to abandon it’s rejection of the outside world back in the 19th century. That’s twice America has imposed its will on Japan. The presence of multiple alien races creates a third paradigm shift for the Japanese to cope with. A most interesting conundrum.

Given that Japan has twice endured massively radical upheavals representing a sharp change of direction in economics, politics and cultural values, it makes sense to set the story in Japan. Makes it easier to identify with the problem posed. And makes it easier to understand the coping strategy Mizoguchi comes up with. This, in turn, asks every reader to consider if they would have chosen the same path, or selected another approach. In theory we will never have to face this choice. Unless we’re conquered. Or the aliens finally do arrive. In which case, all bets are off. Me? I have no idea how I would cope. This story presents a fascinating challenge to the reader. What would you decide? Be honest.

Memories White – by Matthew Donahue

Premise:

Chester has been abducted by aliens. He always thought the stories were sheer nuttiness. Turns out the stories were genuine, and the reality behind them much worse than anyone had ever revealed.

Review:

I don’t believe in the abduction stories. For one thing, I find it hard to believe aliens would be so petty, unimaginative, and as technologically backward as most of the traditional stories suggest. For this reason I found it quite delightful that one of the beings abducted in this fictional story is a Grey. The actual aliens involved are an order of magnitude nastier. The Greys don’t stand a chance. And certainly not humans.

Still, Chester does his best to find out what is going on and what might be expected of him. Fortunately, among the hundreds if not thousands of alien abductees on board there is one human, Miles by name, who has managed to survive three years in captivity and is willing to mentor Chester. Of course, it’s up to Chester whether or not he accepts advice that might allow him to fit in. For one thing, he needs to know what happens if he doesn’t.

This is a highly amusing story, in that it spoofs the traditional “for real” stories, albeit in a serious manner. It explores logical implications and ramifications that most abduction “reports” don’t bother with. In short, it’s a genuine and entertaining work of science fiction rather than the usual tiresome addition to the cult mythology that so many believe in. As a work of fiction it strikes me as a breath of fresh air. I like it. Even though, or maybe especially because, the ending will surprise you.

The Alchemy of Curses  – by Joshua Grasso

Premise:   

Vikantanda belongs to the Brikanji tribe who have the power to bestow bad luck and worse. Shunned and hated by all, they earn a living offering a protection racket. Pay up or suffer unspeakable consequences. Pity Vikantanda has fallen in love with Jarmila, a girl outside the tribe. Just talking to her could get them both lynched.

Review:

The setting and the era is left unexplained. Even the culture. What counts is the situation. I am reminded of the untouchables in the Indian caste system. However, the Brikanji actually possess the malevolent powers they are credited with. Collectively, they inhabit the bottom of the social order, yet enjoy a meagre but steady income. Individually, they can be threatened and harassed, but no one dares attempt to destroy them collectively. Their position is secure, if not particularly pleasant.

So, this is all about crossing caste/class/social lines. It’s not a love affair, except to Vikantanda. It’s more of a revenge tale complicated by forbidden love. Really, it’s another story about coping with the hand life has dealt you. There are echoes of honour killings, certain taboos, and other culturally-dictated family traditions that can be said to plague nations attempting to be modern. Suffice to say, true individualism scarcely exists where tradition is paramount. Often family has nothing to do with democracy. One of the reasons a democratic society is so hard to achieve. This story explores the victim-hood of conformity imposed by family culture, and what is a tribe but a greater family? Is not a nation but a greater tribe? Layers and layers of restriction and restraint in modern civilization. No wonder freedom is so hard to come by.

The disturbing thing about this story is that it is really about us, all of us, to one degree or another. Well worth reading.

He Sold What He had Left  – by Dianne Callahan

Premise:   

A prisoner sells all that he as left. He has nothing to lose.

Review:

This brief poem addresses several science fiction themes, but really it’s about something universal through-out time and culture, how to retain your sense of self against all odds.

Grass Whisperer – by Lynne M. Maclean

Premise:

He tends his garden with a care and intent unusual for a gardener.

Review:  

A poem suggesting the act of gardening is more than a mere pastime or hobby, the key to understanding to be found in the distant past. 

NON-FICTION:

A Long Time Ago, in City-States Far Away … – Review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness long Ago by Lisa Timpf.

A thoughtful review touching on plot and characterization, but focusing on Kay’s techniques to engage the reader as well as comparing this book to a number he had written earlier. Offers both an enticing glimpse of Ahis novel but also an overview of the highlights of his career.

GIVEN: An interview with Fantasy Author Nandi Taylor – by David F. Shultz

The emphasis in this interview is on focus and intent, or “How to stand out from the crowd of generic YA fantasy novels.” There is much insight offered here, not only on how a black author goes about creating a black character, but on how it is possible to write original fantasy that is fresh and inspiring. Fantasy fen will enjoy reading this interview, but I believe fantasy writers will find it especially useful.

Craft: Alternative Dialogue Attribution– by David F. Shultz, Y.M. Pang, Brandon Butler, and Justin Dill

Sometimes, more often than not, “he said” is best, as opposed to “he exclaimed” or “he ejaculated.” Particularly if the reader has already imagined the tone of the sentence and is somewhat jarred by the writer’s follow-up description of same. There’s no hard and fast rule. Sometimes it pays to be more elaborate. These mini-essays explore the possibilities. Plenty of food for thought for writers.

Exercise: Seven Nuns in an Elevator – by David F. Shulz, and Martin Munks

David proposes an exercise designed to illustrate how to avoid superficial strategies when defining characters. Martin provides an example, which David then critiques. Definitely something beginning writers should look at. An entertaining example of a self-teaching tool that is a lot of fun to play around with.

And finally, a word-usage Crossword Puzzle

Samples: Across, 10 spaces, “far-seeing” protagonist, & Down, 8 spaces, “The Cursed People.” All items are based on the contents of the magazine.

CONCLUSION:

A common piece of advice for just about any endeavour is “start slowly and build …” That certainly does not apply to Speculative North. It is one king hell of a first issue! I am stunned at how good it is, both fiction and articles. First class magazine. A wonderful addition to the few Canadian periodicals we already have. Can’t wait to read and review the next issue.

Of interest to note, when SN’s submission window is open, the editors are willing to accept submissions from anywhere in the world. So SF writers worldwide would do well to examine this issue and get a sense of the kind of stories Speculative North is looking for. I suspect this will wind up being a prestigious market to appear in. Figure it’s going to be around for a long time.

Yep. Terrific magazine. Fantastic debut. “Quality ‘R US” be their motto. I’m quite excited about it. Looking forward to all the issues to come. Highly, highly recommended.

Check it out at:  <  Speculative-North-Magazine  >

 

 

 

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