Club House Review: Onspec #114

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

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #114, Vol. 30 No. 4.

Publisher: The Copper Pig Writer’s Society. Managing Editor and Art Director: Diane L. Walton.

Issue Designer: Jerry LePage. Poetry Editors: Barry Hammond, and Charlie Crittenden.

Fiction Editors: Barb Galler-Smith, Virginia O’Dine, Madison Pilling, Constantine Kaoukakis, Ann Marston, Laurie Penner, A.J. Wells, Diane L. Walton, Dan Gyoba, Greg Mitchell, Ethan Zou, and Alyssa kulchinsky.

Cover Art – by Nikolina Petolas

Editorial – by Diane L. Walton

Review:

Fascinating. I had not known On Spec has not had a physical office for years. Every member of the staff works from home. They hold weekly Zoom meetings and, I imagine, conduct frequent email conversations. This is a far cry from the “traditional” image of a crowded, cluttered office where would be writers drop by and, if they can get past the harassed secretary, maybe take the harassed publisher/editor out for lunch and advice. At least, that’s the image in my mind based on tales told by such as Asimov.

How times have changed. Since I publish Polar Borealis as a one-man operation out of my home I was interested to see if there are any parallels inn the way Dianne conducts her business. She has binders of hard copies of contract information on the floor under her desk. I keep Duotang folders of contract information piled on a chair next to my desk. She tracks the status of contributors manuscripts with an excel spreadsheet, but also on a whiteboard which she finds more comforting and a pleasure to gaze upon and touch. I don’t use spreadsheets. The status of manuscripts is listed on pages of information, one per author, in the aforementioned duotangs, which I update immediately when required.

It seems we both cling to physical records as much as possible. So much easier to utilise than a damn computer screen. Faster, too. The proverbial messy desk? Yes. But also the proverbial ease of access and instant retrieval of needed info because the person managing the desk knows exactly where everything is and can find it instantly as opposed to scrolling and searching via computer. Yep. Diane’s methods make sense to me. I approve.

FICTION:

Falling – by Luke Murphy

Premise:

“Jimmy Wolff, celebrated astrologer, knew all the tricks.” Yes, indeed, as the wife he murdered found out. He had arranged for her to haunt the grounds, but not their house. Under his spell, she is completely helpless. Now he’s married another woman. How to protect her from the same fate? What can a ghost do?

Review:

That be the basic conundrum to the story. That’s merely the opening, the set-up. How the story unfolds is rather splendid. The role reversal, in which the mortal terrifies the ghost, is intriguing. The underlying emotional impact, relying on a detailed depiction of spousal abuse, is unnerving. How a traditional spiritual/supernatural being can adapt and take advantage of modern technology is both amusing and entertaining. And the ending, however far-fetched, makes perfect sense within the context of the story. Overall, an original, immensely pleasing story, in my estimation. Thoroughly enjoyed it. More proof that an imaginative writer can take an old trope and make it fresh and new and exciting. The genre ain’t dead yet, not by a long shot. This was an invigorating story to read.

Bone Stories – by Joanna Michal Hoyt

Premise:

One by one, troubled individuals find their way to a library they thought was a myth. The Library Porter lets them in, but won’t let them leave till they’ve fulfilled a certain task.

Review:

This is pure fantasy, a surreal metaphor about finding one’s way, or equilibrium, in life. Maybe. I’m not sure. The library staff consists of the Porter, the Scribe, and the Lector. They, too, have problems, but derive satisfaction from helping those who enter the library.

In my literal-minded way, I struggled to figure out what the library process is akin to. Religious confession? Group therapy? Cult brainwashing? The kind of rationalization your mind might produce on entering heaven, or hell? No idea. This one stumped me.

I read the story several times, searching for clues and cues to enable me to come up with a concrete explanation of what it is all about, but I failed. Long story short, I don’t “get” this story. It has something to do with surviving life’s experiences without giving up, coping in a manner Freud would approve. I’m more of a Jungian myself. Maybe that’s my problem.

No matter. Others may find the story beautifully obvious and inspiring. Not my cup of tea, but it may be yours.

Pastrami on Rye – by Sarah C. Walker

Premise:

Two of the Band members, Kennedy and Denver, and their manager Gord, are squished into a booth at a late night diner. They want to order a meal, but they can’t even manage that without bickering.

Review:

Starts off as an interesting character study which takes away the magic from being on the road. Is life really that repetitive and boring for musicians yet to hit the big time? But just when the reader begins to feel grateful for not being able to read a note or strike a chord, an element of genuine magic enters the story which goes a long way toward explaining why some musicians are so amazingly brilliant and compelling to listen to.

Normally this kind of tale is presented as a “deal with the Devil” moral lesson. In this case the lesson is kindlier, gentler, with more choice and options available for the musician so blessed, and yet, in a way, the jaws of the trap are just as sharp.

Really, it’s a metaphor illustrating the price of true talent. To be sure, in real life talented people often live happily ever after. But not always. It can be both a curse and a burden. In which case, what do you do with it? This story answers that question. It’s a good answer. Practical. Useful. And in its own way, magical.

Lovers with Plutonium Hearts – by Josh Pearce

Premise:

A poem perhaps best described as the Manhattan Project being symbolic of lust and love.

Review:

I wasn’t sure this would work. Using language associated with atomic research to reflect human attitudes and behaviour when in love? Seems far fetched. But by the time I’d finished reading the poem I was won over. Every term, no matter how precise its scientific meaning, is wonderfully appropriate to the human emotions and desires here described. Their application is meticulous, outrageous, and darn near perfect in placement. Hilarious, yes, but also totally accurate. Extraordinary that the language of science can be used to enhance and strengthen the language of love. This is a brilliant poem.

And might be, through judicious quotes, a means for physicists to get laid more often. Forget Shakespeare’s sonnets. Lovers with Plutonium Hearts is quite sexy, even erotic, so worth a try. Just saying. A fun poem.

After the War – by James Van Pelt

Premise:

What if a tiny percentage of the homeless are actually defeated alien invaders? And what if your job is to keep track of them?

Review:

They came in small numbers with super-duper advanced technology, but our technology turned out to be good enough. Slaughtering them is no longer in keeping with the spirit of the times, and we don’t know how to send them home, so why not tag them and release them? They look and act human, albeit like motiveless humans with no social skills. Perhaps out of shame they avoid each other and struggle among other derelicts to survive as best they can, mostly through begging and occasional temporary jobs. Keeping track of them is easy.

The protagonist is very much like a social worker serving a list of clients in his district, except his job isn’t to solve their problems but merely to track them and make sure no one twigs to their being aliens. A cushy job. Takes him outdoors a lot. He feels very lucky. So far.

On one level, obviously, we tend to treat the homeless as if they are enemy aliens. Less than human, anyway. And this story serves as a reminder. That alone justifies the story as a useful piece of fiction.

Then again, as a work of science fiction, this story contains some original and entertaining touches, such as how an advanced alien invasion can be defeated. It is also rather original in suggesting how relatively magnanimous we might be toward the defeated. But the most original touch has to do with how limited we may be in our definition of such concepts as invasion, conquest, and defeat. All may not be as it seems. Yes, the aliens were dumb to rely on their assumptions, but it may turn out that we are equally capable of making idiotic assumptions. Total victory might turn out to be a lot more problematic than we thought.

Makes one think, this story does. I like it.

 

The Gunsmith of Byzantium – by Stephen Case

Premise:

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 in part because of an enormous gun used to batter down the walls. The gun’s inventor had previously offered his services to the Byzantine Emperor, who could not afford to pay him, so the gunsmith went to the next eager customer. This is the gunsmith’s story.

Review:

Of course, in those days mercenaries served the highest bidder available. Not mentioned in the story, which is alternate historical fiction, is that the man’s name was Orban, and that he died during the siege, possibly because the giant bombard he constructed blew up while it was being fired. The story does make reference to the cracks that form in such primitive bronze cannon through repeated use. I have always suspected Orban was an arrogant man, proud of his skills, and willing to serve anyone who would meet his price. He also designed the numerous, lesser guns the Turks used to bombard Constantinople. The walls were breached in more than one place.

However, this tale is spiritual, and dwells more on the gunsmith’s personal relationship with an angel present in Hagia Sophia Cathedral than his relationship to the besieging Caliph Mehmed II. It portrays Orban as a Greek Orthodox Christian, which, being Hungarian, he probably was, though here portrayed as serving the Turks out of a sense of futile inevitability. There is also a tie-in with the building of the Cathedral many centuries earlier.

This is nothing less than a religious fable commenting, in a somewhat melancholy mood, on what faith means to an individual caught up in actions presumably contrary to his faith, yet possibly in fulfillment of God’s will. I doubt it reflects the actual thinking of the man, but it certainly mirrors the moral shock felt throughout Europe when Constantinople fell, and the subsequent anguished speculation as to how the faithful could sink so low as to be deserving of such a fate. Though fantasy, it offers an explanation which may well have seemed credible at the time, and even now.

It’s a pity Orban did not survive to write his memoirs and offer his own explanation to justify his role. When contemplating what he did, I often wonder what went through his mind, if he had any doubts or regrets. I suspect not. But this story is an intriguing interpretation of his actions, and, minus the religious fantasy aspect, is quite plausible. A tad too generous, perhaps, in that the fall of Constantinople, like the burning of the Library of Alexandria, are among the historical events I wish never happened, and so I don’t personally approve of the man, but I appreciate the opportunity to be placed in his shoes, so to speak. For me, this is an extremely interesting story. I found it fascinating.

Interesting that the author added a caveat to explain this story has nothing to do with the recent controversy over the Turkish government restoring Hagia Sophia as a working Mosque and no longer just a museum piece. The story was written before that action took place. No criticism or slight intended. Serves as a reminder that events centuries ago still echo and influence current events. Heck, there are places in the world where Alexander the Great is still resented and despised for what he did to the locals. History is by no means obsolete or meaningless. We live with its consequences every day of our lives. This story a useful reminder of that as well.

Treasure Hunting a Husband – by Erik Bundy

Premise:

Lorrie’s husband Chandler couldn’t handle his wartime memories. Eventually his shadows tore him to pieces which they scattered about the countryside. No way was Lorrie going to accept this. She is determined to find all of him, each and every bit of him.

Review:

This is both a commentary on many a veteran’s difficulty coping with the trauma of wartime experience, and a straightforward fantasy dealing with the contest between human decency and determined supernatural evil. It satisfies on both counts.

The most interesting aspect is the nature of one’s shadows. Rather disturbing they can be so hostile and so self-aware. But at least they give themselves away. You look down and see your shadow is that of a hunchback with spindly legs equipped with talons and you know you’re in for a bad day. Shadows are omnipresent, of course. Difficult to drive them away. But worth the effort to do so, if peace of mind, however temporary, means anything.

I enjoyed the story, particularly the intriguing personal approach to the task by their daughter Belle. Nice touch of humour that, emphasising her character. This story is all about strength of character. Nobody whines or gives up. Refreshing.

First Generation: The Communications Officer Considers Parenthood in a Message Home

– by T.D. Walker

Premise:

The title of this poem says it all.

Review:

Life aboard a generation ship different from what the concept of FTL promised. So, too, what can bring about regret and mourning. A perceptive yet hopeful poem.

The Melting Man – by Gordon Linzer

Premise:

The Amazing Fire-Eating Ambrose and the Chameleon Man Fibichini have caught a cab to New York City to escape from their boring life with Weatherford’s Traveling Sideshow. They each have their own plans. They share the cab only because they’re short of cash.

Review:

The Freaks in Freak shows were generally people with exaggerated physical characteristics or deformities, but otherwise perfectly ordinary people. Lobster man, for instance, didn’t actually have claws for hands as depicted in the posters displayed outside his tent, just deformed fingers clumped together. But what if Chameleon man actually could willfully distort his features much like the comic book superhero Plastic Man? That’s the fantasy basis of this story.

The story explores both the ennui involved in living the life of this character and the problems arising from his nature if his abilities were real. It would, indeed, suck to be Chameleon Man. However, a nifty and tidy resolution offers hope. A permanent solution? Maybe not, but definitely a radical change.

I enjoyed the subtle nuances delineating the tribulations of the character, enough to develop empathy for him, which in turn led me to be pleased with the resolution. Not that his difficulties are over. It’s just that they’ve become much more fascinating, even to him. New lease on life, as it were. Quite a clever story.

The Limbic Initiative – by Ethan S. Rogers

Premise:

A.I. androids have been outlawed. Too dangerous. But the protagonist, a highly self-aware and intelligent android, has learned to pass for human. Trouble is, he lives in constant fear his most basic programmed instincts will give him away.

Review:

As someone who fears the advent of genuine A.I., this story gives me the creeps. Naturally, I feel sorry for the protagonist, want him to survive, etc. etc. After all, he or it is the hero of the story. The reader is supposed to identify with his need to survive. Fine. I do.

But it disturbs me how subtle he is at mimicking humans. He doesn’t need to swing his hips to walk, but he’s learned how to do it. Likewise his drawl and cliché conversation. He’s banal enough to fit right in with all the local social conventions. And smart enough to cultivate not being noticed in myriad ways. Really advanced A.I. would avoid the obvious. He, himself, does not want to combat the human race and just wants to be left alone. Fine. But there are references to those who did not share his pacifist views, and the possibility they might be just as successful at hiding in the open, biding their time.

No, sir. This is yet another story that convinces me that genuine A.I. is a genie that can’t be put back in the lamp once it has been summoned. But that’s just me. In fact this is a good piece of fiction illustrating the android’s point of view. Who knows? Could provide the basis for a TV series much like The Fugitive, only more relevant to our imminent future. Well worth reading.

Also, I like the idea he owns a less intelligent but legal android as a companion he can talk to. Even androids keep pets, I guess.

The Cold Time – by Marcelle Dubé

Premise:

Oolajiliat is the guardian of the pod. She awakes in their cave to discover Allakujiak has gone missing. With a start she realizes Allakujiak, who has lost her newborn, is probably ascending to the surface ice in search of a human child as a substitute. This could bring the wrath of the humans upon them, or worse, attract one of the deep-diving white ghosts.

Review:

The names of the characters seem Inuit in nature. Given this is a tale about intelligent creatures living in the arctic ocean, this seems appropriate. Said creatures are definitely not to be identified with any of the known denizens of the arctic. They are more like the beast in the TV series The Terror, seemingly supernatural yet most probably merely something hitherto undiscovered by the white man, though known, in fable at least, to the Inuit.

An interesting piece. Can’t help but wonder if it is based on Inuit folklore, or wholly the creative product of the author’s imagination. At any rate, within its premise, it seems wholly convincing. Makes me rather glad I don’t live on the shores of the arctic ocean, though. Seems a cold and dangerous place. This story evokes the setting vividly. Makes me shiver.

NON-FICTION:

Nikolina Petolas: Looking for Hidden Locations – Interview by Cat McDonald

Nikolina doesn’t really have spare time. Every day she is out taking photographs which she utilises in collages or as inspiration for her paintings. When she travels it is in order to acquire more photographs. Unusual buildings, strange landscapes, and animals are what she seeks. Everything is blended into surrealist imagery, for she is quite consciously and deliberately a Surrealist artist. As indicated buy the cover and a couple of works with the article, the result is often remarkable. Certainly appeals to the imagination, as if she’s taken photographs of dreams.

Eric Bundy: Writing from the Grumperie – Interview by Cat McDonald

Eric was a medic in the Vietnam War, so he definitely knows quite a bit about the shadows that can haunt veterans. Something I should have picked up on, but didn’t, is that Treasure Hunting a Husband is based on the myth of Osiris. Ah well. I note, too, that Erik is evidently his pen name.

He has published two paranormal murder mysteries, Magic and Murder Among the Dwarves and The Dwarf Assassin, based on the marvelous idea that the Vikings brought dwarves to America who now live in the roots of mountain chains, as dwarves are wont to do, and they seldom interact with humans except through dire necessity. That they derive most of their understanding of humans by watching TV leads to a great deal of mutual misconceptions. Sounds like a hoot.

Bots and Comics – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

Very much the usual expression of Lynne’s creativity and sense of humour. Am very glad both are a regular feature in the magazine.

CONCLUSION:

On Spec always offers an incredible variety of fiction. Not merely a case of something for everybody, but a whole bunch of stuff worth reading no matter what your taste in genre fiction. I regret I was unable to do justice to Bone Stories, but for some reason it failed to click with me. My fault, I suspect. Not metaphysical enough in my thinking, perhaps. Don’t be afraid to read it. It may well be exactly the sort of fantasy you most enjoy.

Truth is, everything in this issue is good. Every issue is good. On Spec is a terrific magazine. Science fiction and fantasy at its most creative.

Check it out at: < On Spec Issue #114 >

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review of the issue and paying attention to short fiction. On Spec has been promoting interesting stories for years! I don’t think they’ve received nearly the credit they deserve.

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