CLUBHOUSE: Review: “The Light Between Stars” edited by Catherine Fitzsimmons

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

THE LIGHT BETWEEN STARS

Publisher: Brain Lag Publishing, Milton, Ontario, Canada, July 2020.

Editor: Catherine Fitzsimmons

Cover Art: Catherine Fitzsimmons.

Introduction – by Catherine Fitzsimmons

Premise:

Presenting the theme Reach for the Stars and capsule comments on each story. Plus a brief explanation as to why Catherine became a publisher.

Review:

At a time when independent Canadian publishers seem to be going out of business (ChiZine Publications, Double Dragon Publishing, Coteau Books, Five Rivers Publishing, and Bundoran Press), it is refreshing to read how enthusiastically a single individual chose to become a publisher ten years ago and is still putting out books. Canadian authors need more markets in Canada! Catherine’s experience offers a role model in terms of what it takes to make the commitment. Worth considering.

FICTION:

Life in the Universe – by Dale E. McClenning

Premise:  

Exploring the Galaxy turned out to be remarkably easy. Unfortunately with little result. Captain Rebecca Espen leads the crew of a Starship on yet another boring mission.

Review:

At first I was taken aback by references to coffee and television shows and casual cultural icons like Buck Rogers and Mr. Rogers. A non-futurist tale of the future. It read like bad space opera. But then, as the info dumps and rather curious crew interrelationships piled up, I began to note hints of Dark Star influences. If you’ve seen that movie you’ll know what I mean. Perhaps I should be more current and mention Galaxy Quest. To put it another way, I finally realized this was a parody.

The beauty of this approach is that the author and the readers needn’t concern themselves with scientific realism. Of course the engines can’t power up to full capacity when you need them. Of course it only takes a translation device five hours to crack the code of a totally alien language. The Captain’s ego, snide comments to self, and peculiar asides directed at Ghu knows whom are perfectly acceptable clichés within the context of the story. It’s all very comfortable and familiar. The readers have no need to get bogged down in details. Instead they settle down to drift with the flow and see where it takes them. Call it a relaxed search for original touches.

I was particularly struck by a common-sense approach to faster than light interstellar navigation I had not thought of before nor remember seeing anywhere else. Indeed, there are several throwaway original concepts embedded in the story. Quite nifty ones. But what the story is really about has to do with first contact with an alien race with an uncommon response to same, uncommon in fiction and media, that is. Also, certain seemingly arbitrary aspects of the Captain’s behaviour and thought processes are revealed as perfectly credible and justified in the final scene. In the best tradition everything wraps up nicely.

Dale could have taken a different approach, perhaps a dead serious “real science dictates” method but then both he and the readers would have struggled with a strait-jacket imposed on essentially background context details that would have gotten in the way of telling the story. Adopting a light-hearted parody technique allowed the story to be presented simply and unobscured by unnecessary “facts.” This worked rather well. Entertaining.

The Coward and the Thief in Paradise – by Gary Girod

Premise:

Samantha is a cadet in Paradise, a four-hundred acre complex of aging buildings set in rolling green hills. She is being trained to unleash paranormal powers, if such exist. Her sinful, improper thinking is holding her back, or so she is told, constantly, every day. Paradise is hell.

Review:

Superficially the story is about escaping from a physical prison into the outside world. But really it’s all about escaping from mental conditioning such as a cult or fanatical ideology would impose. The aim of Paradise is a level of perfection that transcends physical reality, which is another way of saying an ideal which is permanently beyond reach, and thus the perfect tool for perpetually punishing acolytes and keeping them in line. To what end? In this case spending virtually all waking hours weeding the institution’s lawns. A metaphor for the kind of meaningless life imposed by many belief systems. Like prisoners in Canadian Federal prisons handed nail scissors in order to mow grass (a punishment technique described to me by a guard from one such prison). The story is all about escape.

Traditionally, in real life, the solution is to blend in and not cause waves. “If you haven’t done anything wrong no one will punish you.” But as Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police, once put it “Everyone is guilty of something.” There is no such thing as innocence in an oppressive regime or cult. Unobtainable ideals and quotas are the very lifeblood of such entities. They justify any and all repression. Kind of a perpetual closed loop of assumed guilt, punishment, and suffering beneficial to the order, state, party or faith in control. This is how control is maintained.

Rather a depressing lesson. To be sure, an element of wishful thinking fantasy relieves the story for dramatic purposes, but the true value of this story lies in its depiction of mind control and how to recognize it. It’s not just absolute totalitarian governments that pull this kind of stunt. I see reflections in my own life experience. A story to make one think, hence useful.

Tinker’s Toxin – by Stephen B. Pearl

Premise:

In a post-apocalyptic world there are a few communities preserving varying degrees of technological knowledge, enough to field travelling “Tinkers” who offer select tech from their wagons to suspicious Darklanders, the majority of what remains of humanity. Every now and then a “gift” from the ancestors calls for emergency measures.

Review:

I am reminded of the engineer “elite” in the book and film Things to Come. The Tinkers are not so powerful or resourceful. Nevertheless it stands to reason not everyone will be reduced to medieval technology should world civilization collapse. There will be holdouts with suitable local resources and records.

What makes this story fairly unique in the post-apocalypse subgenre is the hidden threat posed to future times by the garbage of today. Sounds very ordinary and mundane, and it is. Point is a great deal of what we accept as ordinary and mundane (as opposed to exciting stuff like, say, nuclear waste under concrete domes), is in fact extremely deadly. Yes, there are solutions available which will prevent our garbage slaughtering our descendants, but these solutions cost money, and in an era devoted to the mantra of “maximizing profits” the death of descendants not yet born doesn’t mean a tinker’s damn (an obsolete phrase I’ve been dying to use for decades—at last I have a legitimate excuse).

The drama of this story lies not so much in the basic concept—it is very much a concept-driven story—but in the attitudes of assorted characters which mirror modern views on the value and consequences of modern technology. I’d even go so far as to say its more appropriate in light of today’s world once the struggle between experts who actually know how to deal with the problem, and uneducated people who fear and even despise the experts for being experts, is made clear in the course of the story. Sound familiar?

There is a school of thought that the human race is basically too stupid to save itself from any preventable apocalypse. Here’s a story which implies the human race is too stupid to survive in the post-apocalypse period. How jolly. Yet, humans, being human, tend to persist. I mean, heck, our ancestors survived the last ice age. True, living under dire circumstances is often along the lines of “We’re all gonna die so we might as well try not to” which, when you get right down to it, is actually a perfectly good reason to remain civilized. Worth a try. This story points that out.

Battling Old Dragons– by J.R. Dwornik

Premise:

The Goddess Nadia challenges the great hero Lyle to fulfill a quest she cannot herself undertake because she is under a spell. Lyle might succeed, though he may have to deal with a pesky dragon first. Lyle agrees to give it a try, but fears the task will be bothersome and boring.

Review:

First of all, this story is but one episode of the main character’s life story which is being chronicled elsewhere, but I choose to critique it as a stand-alone tale.

Secondly, there’s an awful lot of talking going on, to the point where I wanted to scream “Show! Not tell!” In truth, I was about ready, fairly quickly, to stop reading and skip to the next story. But I kept reading, if only to see what other “rules” were being broken.

Then I reached an epiphany of sorts. To whit: this isn’t your typical fantasy with by-the-numbers cliché characters. This is a story about real people in a fantasy setting. No wonder they drone on and on. Even amid great success they consider themselves failures who never measured up. Sure Lyle is a great hero who has fought his way to being the supreme commander of his native city state. But it is no big deal to him. Rather the opposite. His father had been much better at the job. And his dead brother far more charismatic and inspiring. Lyle is lousy at giving speeches or laying plans. He can only lead by example and hope his followers catch on. He feels very much a fraud.

Nadia has problems too. Guilt is very unbecoming for a Goddess. She hates her flaws. They make her feel helpless. Even Garm the Dragon is perpetually dissatisfied. Humans are an annoyance of course, to be either ignored or crushed underfoot like ants, but the Gods are getting uppity and forgetting their proper role as inferiors to Dragons. Life is getting far too complicated.

Worst of all, from Lyle’s viewpoint, his father trained him from birth to serve and defend their  beloved city. Unlike his brother, who rebelled and went off to lead a life of his own. True, he died young, but Lyle still envies him, still feels jealous over the fact his brother was able to take charge of his own life whereas he was forever the dutiful son to the point of having no life of his own. His father is dead, but no liberation is at hand. Lyle is stuck in the same rut and role the people expect of him. It’s enough to drive a hero to drink. Come to think of it, it has.

I admit it is rather fun to read a heroic fantasy where everyone has such heavy feet of clay it slows them down, reducing heroism and even villainy to mundane levels of routine. For one thing, it renders fulfilling quests all the more difficult and totally unpredictable in their consequences. Goals and achievements wind up being mismatched. The outcome is not what the reader anticipates, and least of all what the characters expect. A lot like real life, in other words.

Yes, the pace is slow at first, but becomes sprightly enough once all the characters are together. The constant second-guessing and self-analysis may not to be to everyone’s taste, but I found the approach invigorating and rather original. So different from the “usual” fantasy which often seems like a transcribed D&D session. Or to put it another way, if that’s what this is, then Freud and Jung were among the players.

To sum up: At first I thought I was reading badly-written fantasy, but by the end I was quite delighted. Dwornik is a gutsy writer who takes many chances which might be off-putting to some, but if the readers persevere and clue in, the rewards are most satisfying. I am very pleased my initial impression was completely wrong. I like this story. A lot.

Nowhere to Nowhere – by Hugh A.D. Spencer

Premise:

Becca is in love with Mr. Koch, a man her uncle’s age. The good news is he loves her back, and they get to work and live together. Trouble is, their job offers infinite possibilities.

Review:

Hugh has taken actual scraps of genuinely historical research and weaved them together to “invent” a device of supremely advanced technology which is both incredibly wonderful and incredibly useless. This because no evidence of the wonders it reveals can be preserved to show others. Hence the references to the famous cartoon about the singing frog that keeps silent in the presence of strangers. Very frustrating for the one individual who knows it can sing.

Seems to me were there to be a large number of operators of this device, rather than just two people, at least word of mouth would spread. But to what purpose? Practical applications are impossible. The story concentrates on the two main characters, their relationship, and their growing frustration with their job which, while extremely interesting, produces nothing.

What puzzles me is the complete absence of other people. The device in question is the gigantic underground complex, many-storied, that Becca and Koch work in. Only an extremely wealthy  government or corporate entity could have constructed this massive facility which is located near a small Canadian town. There’s room for hundreds, if not thousands, of people performing exactly the same fruitless function. Yet the only reference to others being present is a casual mention Mr. Koch had originally been hired to be the resident electrician. Now he’s a researcher, one who has hired his lover to help him. Where are the others?

Perhaps the place is abandoned. Perhaps it’s a derelict white elephant the government is only too glad to pretend never existed.  Then again, the potentiality of the place is so mindbogglingly enormous perhaps it is literally infinite in size albeit, Tardis-like, confined to a comparatively small space. Could be the place is teeming with researchers, albeit so spread out they never meet. Could be I am being, as usual, way too literal-minded. Could be my questions are irrelevant to the purpose of the story.

To a degree I think the story is probably a metaphor for small town life and the question of how opportunities can threaten the comfortable same-old same-old continuity of personal relationships. Personally, I think my sense of curiosity would keep me “employed” at the facility for the rest of my life. But that’s just me. Being in a loving relationship could complicate things. Interesting choices might have to be made. And, indeed, are made in this story.

Apart from the love interest, this is a another concept-driven story. I find the core concept fascinating and greatly enjoyed reading about its multi-faceted complexity. Frankly, it involves the kind of job I’ve always dreamed about. Alas, only available in science fiction. So far.

Other London: Ella’s Birthday– by Erynn Q

Premise:

In 1976 Magic was been introduced to the world by Aliens. Forty years later humans still haven’t quite got the hang of handling magic, so numerous aliens function as “Fixers” to correct their mistakes. The Middlesex County Fixing Bureau in London, Ontario, has four employees. Only one is human, and her birthday is coming up. The aliens aren’t quite sure what to do about it.

Review:  

While this is a charming story, it’s not quite my cup of tea. The aliens are typical fantasy figures. For example, Denji is a wizard, and his familiar is a fairy cat named Nebula who habitually wears an orange scarf and has the power to talk in plain English to humans. Since Ella, the birthday girl, is in the ninth grade (she works part-time at the bureau after school hours), it makes sense Nebula would chose to go off to a nearby mall to study the habits of teenage girls in order to figure out what would make a suitable gift. This, of course, would no doubt appeal to teenage readers, particularly the humorous aspects of this slice-of-life study, but it is not a subject of abiding interest to me. I’m amused, but not fascinated.

The challenge of coming up with appropriate gifts on short notice, a challenge apparently handicapped by a lack of knowledge about local human culture, isn’t sufficiently dramatic enough to engage me. There are interesting bits like the young alien apprentice Zach, who insists on living inside computer programs for some reason, being frightfully embarrassed by a personal interest no one else cares about, which struck me as an appropriate example of typical teenage angst, but this is not a problem I can identify with.

I think I’m just too damned old to properly appreciate this story. I’m not the target audience. To be sure, I had all kinds of problems as a teenager, but my fantasy solutions designed to allow me to evade reality always involved science fiction tropes. This gentle fantasy is apart from my youthful experience and mindset, such that I am unable to relate to it. I have the feeling the appropriate readership would enjoy this story, even love it. But not I.

I confess to feeling a bit disappointed in myself. I would have thought I am smart enough to appreciate fiction beyond my own experience. But when I think further about it, I realize the bulk of my reading as a youth involved action adventure stories that stirred my sense of wonder. Everything from the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series to Swiss Family Robinson and the likes of Ace Carew—Airman Speed King. Probably The Wind in the Willows was the gentlest book I read. More discerning readers may derive much more from this pleasant story than I can. Afraid it didn’t trigger my sense of wonder. But then, I’m an old curmudgeon, even when I was young, so …

CONCLUSION:

Apologies to the authors of the remaining stories I didn’t get around to reviewing.

I think I have reviewed enough to show this collection consists of highly original takes on what at first sight appear standard themes that turn out to be wrenched in unexpected directions by the originality and creativity of the authors. Exactly the kind of stories I like to read. I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

The book is being released this month. Currently available for pre-order, it might even be “launched” by the time you read this.

Check it out at:  <  The Light Between Stars >

 

 

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. I always enjoy your insightful reviews, Graeme. Thanks for again promoting Canadian writers and publishers in this troubling time. Now, as you noted, Bundoran Press has called it quits (just the latest good Canadian publisher to do so), and the need for Canadian publishers is greater than ever.
    How many will survive this virus, I wonder?

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