OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
SPECULATIVE NORTH issue #3, Vol. 1 No. 3. December, 2020.
Publisher: TDotSpec Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Editors: Lead Editor David F. Shultz; Fiction Editor and Managing Editor Don Miasek; Poetry Editor W.T. Anderson.
Cover Art: Eran Fowler.
Autumn in the Dying Light – by Brian Koukol
Tom is severely handicapped. Fortunately, he is alive at a time when advancing medical technology can take care of needs be they basic or subtle. Unfortunately, everything comes at a price. Life is never easy.
Probably, secretly, everyone somewhere in their mind dreads becoming totally dependant on other people for even their most basic needs. At the same time, many people assume advancing medical technology will improve the quality of life to something as good as “normal” life. Maybe even better. For those of you who dream their future cyborg selves will be a treat compared to the state of their body when its warranty runs out, this story is not for you. It’s quite depressing.
Without giving away the plot, I’ll simply say that human nature remains both a virtue and a curse. As for super-duper advanced technology, much of its usefulness depends on marketing and the laws of supply and demand, correct? And that in turn largely depends on human nature? The essential conundrum remains. The essential human condition continues. There are science fictional elements beyond the medical, present to illustrate how individuals struggle to survive, even if it means exploiting their own weaknesses, but the outlook is gloomy. Mere survival does not guarantee happiness. It only prolongs the suffering.
So, why write the story? Why read it? More than any other story I’ve read to date it conveys the ongoing struggle of what it’s like to be severely physically handicapped. The author suffers from Muscular Dystrophy. The voice in the story is authentic. His vision of future medical technology is bleak, even frightening, but only in order to focus on what it means to be human, even when “betrayed” by one’s own body. Readers gain insight, awareness, and respect for those who endure. All too often, healthy people turn their eyes away from what are, for them, mere icons of fate best to be avoided and shunned if only to preserve one’s own good luck. An instinctive reaction, perhaps. This story helps people go beyond their fears and cliché instincts to see and treat the handicapped as the individual people they truly are.
Furthermore, dark as the story is, there are traces of wry humour. That, too, demonstrates the courage of the author. A powerful and needful story.
Bang the Drum – by Andy Dibble
King Suddhodana has a newborn son. He wishes the sage Asita to come and examine his son’s Karma so that the King need not fear his son’s fate. But first Asita wants to figure out how the Demoness Tamisra escaped from Hell. Trouble is, the Karma of the Doomseer Viplava, castrated by Tamisra, is rendering everyone’s Karma difficult to read.
The author is a “Sanskritist” which I assume means someone who reads Hindu scripture, such as the Bhagavad Gita, in the original. I read that in English translation over 50 years ago and have forgotten everything. But I do recall Karma is a Hindu concept later incorporated into Buddhism, so it does not disturb me to read a story in which Hindu and Buddhist concepts appear to mingle. Although my subconscious mind undoubtedly retains some material from my youthful spiritual readings, this story impacts essentially what is a blank slate on my part. Consequently I had a bit of difficulty following the subtle implications of the twists and turns of Karmic revelation. Accepting everything at face value helps. Certainly allowed me to accept the ending with calm equanimity, almost as if I see it as a triumph of Karma, even though I personally do not believe in Karma.
Overall, though, I can’t help but wonder isn’t one life bad enough? The tangled web of Karma woven by multiple lives seems less than inspiring and something of a burden and even a curse. And then it hits me. That’s the point of the story. For the goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, a state of non-being which releases the individual from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. I guess I’m the Homer Simpson of philosophers. Wasn’t till I wrote this paragraph that I realized the story encapsulates the fundamental basis of Buddhism. In that sense it’s a kind of parable.
“Ah, grasshopper. I thought my wisdom flew over your head, but at the last moment you reached up and grabbed it out of thin air. You are not completely an idiot. You are capable of learning.”
My above idiotic spoof of an old TV show cliché does not prove I can learn, but it perhaps indicates I can appreciate learning when I see an effective example of such. The story adds drama to the meaning and significance of Karma. A neat trick of great use to the uninitiated and the unaware.
The Vulture Man – by Kai Calo
Hector Velasquez is only a boy, but having witnessed his sister Valentina struck and killed by a car, the joy of childhood has left him. He begins to notice dead animals, sees the vultures feeding on them. Then he sees the Vulture Man attending the vultures. Then the Vulture Man sees him.
On the one hand, you have a story about a young boy confronting the supernatural, being threatened by a mythic figure, perhaps to the point of being haunted, or even hunted. Certainly there is an ambience of growing menace which engenders fear to the point of obsession and despair. How can this gifted boy, who likes to draw, escape from this looming shadow sucking all the light out of his life?
On the other hand, it is a tale about guilt and the paralysis guilt can inflict on will and purpose, even to the point of hinting that it is unfair to continue living when someone you love has died. There’s more to surviving a tragedy than going on living. Trauma makes survivors question their right to live, makes their lives seem bogus and somehow a crime in itself.
I don’t believe in the Vulture Man, but the debilitating power this literary image represents is as real as death itself. Consequently I readily identify with this character and his efforts to free himself from the Vulture Man’s influence. What the boy succeeds in doing and how he accomplishes it makes perfect sense psychologically. I would go so far as to say this story offers good advice on how to escape from morbid fears. It’s not just a scary campfire tale, creepy enough to give the you the creeps, but also a useful lesson. Well done.
The Air Show – by Rudy Kremberg
A bunch of kids have taken the ferry to the Toronto Islands and have gathered at Hanlan point, which they figure is the best place to watch the Labour Day airshow over the harbour. A pilot dressed in WWII gear, no doubt flying one of the replica warbirds from the Island Airport, suggests a better position. Being model airplane buffs, the kids are hoping to see one or two genuine warbirds. They’re quite surprised to see more than they expected.
Ah, hmmm. I have mixed feelings about this. Not just because I saw some of these Toronto airshows back in the ‘60s, and numerous airshows at Abbotsford in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or for that matter airshows in Ottawa in the ‘50s (I like airshows) but mainly because my Dad, who flew Wellington bombers in WW II, was one of Canada’s first fighter-jet pilots, flying Vampire Jets, and spent most of his working life in the R.C.A.F, as did my brother. I come from an Air Force Family. I respect the R.C.A.F.
At the same time, I was just like the kids in this story, peachy keen on getting the latest plastic model airplane (as a matter of fact I have more than 100 model airplanes waiting to be built—a retirement hobby I have yet to find time for) and reading everything about aviation history I could get my hands on. Even now I can identify many aircraft most people have never even heard of. I still know quite a bit about WW II aircraft and how they were used.
At first glance this story seems like a typically heavy-handed politically correct parable, as if to imply any kid who builds military aircraft models will turn into a war-monger. Some people believe war toys turns kids into neo-Nazi gun-toting fanatics. To which I say, bullshit. I’m still proud to own my military Dinky Toy collection, which dates from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and which I used to play with in my giant sandbox (Dad got carried away building it—about 6 feet wide and 14 feet long), but I didn’t grow up to condone war as the handy-dandy solution to political problems. When General Sherman said “War is Hell” he didn’t mean Hellish or Hell-like, he meant that war IS Hell … Hell on Earth, or the closest thing to it.
And that’s the thing. Even as a kid, reading about military aviation and other forms of military history, I knew the super-duper patriotic “guts & glory” was nothing but pap for the home front. War is a grim business indeed, as any veteran can tell you. And modern technology has made it worse. If it is a topic which becomes relevant, people need to think about it seriously and realistically before they “support” the latest version of Hell we can manage. It’s not a sport. It’s not a game. It is—literally—Hell.
This story reveals a small part of what war was really like for the men who flew the machines and for the civilians who were bombed. Nobody died with a smile on their lips even though they sometimes did in old war movies (John Wayne for one, if memory serves). Little known fact, of those who died most aircrew burned to death. Getting the onboard fuel to ignite was the best and most effective means of destroying an aircraft. The wing fuel tanks were always the priority target. Aircrew bore that in mind every time they flew a mission. They weren’t just risking death, they faced a particularly horrible form of death. Say what you will, they were brave men.
Yes, airplanes can be “sexy” and “beautiful.” They can be fascinating. They can be impressive. I still stop and stare at any airplane or helicopter flying overhead. Man-made birds. Incredible. But they can also be the most terrifying glimpse of the grim reaper you will ever see. In fact, the last thing you see. Taking that into account, a military aircraft is the closest thing to a Jekyll and Hyde character an inanimate object can be. Think about that when you watch an airshow.
Two final points. Manned aircraft are becoming obsolete. Autonomous machines programmed to hunt you down are what the future holds for us. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer kids are into building model airplanes, or any kind of plastic models. It’s a dying hobby. In the not too distant future this story, in terms of the motivations of the kids, may strike readers as incomprehensible. Live long enough, and reality becomes something different. I’ve learned that much.
Anyway, after much reflection, I figure this story makes a valid point. It’s not so much a lip-service antiwar story as a reminder of what war really represents. We should honour our dead for what they were actually up against and how they coped with it. This is where truth is more important than propaganda, even if people don’t want to hear it. Otherwise there are no lessons to be learned. Wouldn’t hurt to include this in grade school anthologies, in my opinion. Definitely a needful lesson.
The Heron King – by Eric Lewis
Not much magic left in the world; only Vril which is a powerful energy source and explosive, rare and hard to produce, but fortunately a monopoly unique to the Queen and her court. It cannot be abused. Till the mythic Heron King shows up in the forest intent on stealing shipments of Vril.
This be a straightforward fantasy with medieval elements combined with a private investigator aspect that makes for a fun tale. There are two problems to be solved. Is the Heron King, a magical figure in himself, real? And, if not, who is behind the hijackings? After assorted twists and turns the conundrum is resolved in a manner satisfactory to the premise. Are there moral lessons to be learned? Perhaps, but to explain would give away the ending. Suffice to say this is an entertaining read.
The Laffun Head – by Christi Nogle
Ricky buys his Mom and Dad a Laffun Head. It functions something like the modern Alexa. When Mom unexpectedly dies, Ricky figures out the Laffun Head has heard enough words from Mom to switch to speaking in her voice. Dad appreciates this. But then the Laffun Head begins to reveal more than it can possibly know.
Laffun Heads are creepy Korean-made gimmick toys that first became available circa 1973. They’re faces of clowns, witches, drunks and what-not that you fix to your wall. Battery powered, they laugh, or yodel, when their “neck-ties” are pulled. Sometimes they drool or spit. They look ugly, and they sound ugly. They fit nicely between your velvet picture of dogs playing poker and your talking-fish plaque. You used to find them in joke stores.
Portraying a Laffun Head as an Alexa helps define the Amazon A.I. assistant as a threat. Showing the evolving intellect of the “Mom” Laffun Head is a great technique for exploring multiple concepts including life after death and A.I. replacing humanity. It’s not spelled out precisely what is happening, but the most disturbing part of the transformation is Dad’s growing dependence and eager acceptance of whatever-the-heck is going on because he finds it more comforting than enduring the loss of his wife. This suggests levels of control George Orwell never conceived of, a control so subtle and desirable it appears painless and effortless to achieve. Is this our future? Maybe.
One thing for sure, I don’t want an Alexa. This story is a warning which reinforces my decision. I will never own an Alexa, unless they become mandatory, in which case it will probably own me. Putting off the Brave New World as long as I can. This story reminds me why.
Sullied Flesh – by Karl Dandenell
In the future, stage actors depend on NAGs, Neural Augmentation Gateway biochips attached to their foreheads, to “inspire” them to perform exactly as famous actors did in the past. In this story, Girard relies on his NAG to perform Hamlet as Richard Burton once did. That’s what tourists come to New York to see. Girard has an ego as big as Burton’s. He’s had his NAG illegally adjusted. With what consequences?
The bulk of the story is a detailed description of a somewhat risky performance of Hamlet. As someone who trod the boards for a number of University productions more than forty years ago (I played Tiresias the Blind Seer in Euripides The Bacchae, for instance) I found this fascinating, even riveting. In my case my dual stage persona consisted of panic-stricken effort to accomplish what the director wanted versus powerful self-doubts about my ability to act. I compromised by simply pretending to be the character, method acting be damned.
Girard, however, is faced with multiple choices. He can do each and every scene as programmed to do, or ignore the NAG and present his own interpretation. The fun begins when the NAG goes haywire and disrupts his decision-making. Suddenly his performance is infinitely more challenging than he had anticipated.
This is a future when individual effort counts for little, yet if successfully presented can determine one’s reputation. NAGs are mandatory. You can’t hold a union card without one. Yet talent will out. Or will it?
Suddenly I get why the author chose Hamlet. “To be or not to be?” That is indeed the question when you are artificially enhanced. Makes Hamlet more meaningful and relevant than ever. This makes me chuckle. Clever.
I think anyone who has ever done some acting will particularly enjoy this story. Also anyone who enjoys theatre. I like it a lot.
The Selkie Wife – (poem) by Marcie Lynn Tentchoff
A brief moment in an unusual relationship.
Never easy to literally marry the supernatural. Evocative of that which lingers.
The Edge of Galaxy NGC 4013 – (Poem) by Warren Brown
Looking at an image on a computer screen.
How imagination transforms imagery into experience. A spiritual poem.
After Dinner Conversation: Interview with Publisher Kolby Granville
“After Dinner Conversation is a cross-media publication comprising short stories, magazine, and podcast discussions, across genres, as accessible examples of abstract ethical and philosophical ideas intended to draw out deeper discussions with students, friends, and family. Each episode of the podcast is devoted to philosophical discussion based on one of the stories in the collection.”
Kolby will accept stories from any genre, so long as they address philosophical issues in new and original ways. He admits SF&F stories, so dependent on “what if?” scenarios, are often ideally suited for this purpose. Topicality, however, doesn’t mean “current.” He’s looking for stories that will be just as relevant 100 years from now as they are today. For instance, a story about Donald Trump will be rejected. But a story exploring philosophical questions about the nature of leadership in a startling manner might well be suitable. I’m guessing that concept-driven fiction is the most desirable, in terms of the underlying theme at least. Anything that makes the reader think about what they’ve just read and the lessons imparted. Much like the bulk of the stories in this issue of Speculative North I’d say.
Craft: The Narrative Lens – by David F. Shultz and Y.M. Pang.
Another excellent article, complete with exercises, in a series designed to get writers to think more clearly about how they write. Not a question of the right way to do it, so much as opening up a cornucopia of possibilities. Very useful indeed.
The usual wide variety of interesting and intriguing tales guaranteed to please readers who enjoy reading SF&F, but also, of interest to anyone interested in writing SF&F. A lot of emulation-worthy techniques and intelligent imagination on display in these pages. Speculative North is simultaneously entertaining and a wonderful teaching tool. Impressive.
Check it out at: < Speculative North #3 >