CLUBHOUSE: Review: On Spec Magazine #117

On the virtues of aged stories

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

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #116, Vol. 31 No. 3.

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, Alyssa Kulchinsky, and Barb Geiger.

Cover Art: Red World, Blue Star – by Dan O’Driscoll

The issue begins with a full page which reads:

In Memoriam

Lorna Toolis

(1952-2021)
Senior Collection Head, Merril Collection (Ret’d. 2017)
CSFFA Hall of Fame Inductee, 2017

An inspiring leader, mentor and dear friend.
She leaves the Canadian SF community a powerful legacy.”

Editorial: Stories are like Wine – by Barb Galler-Smith

Review:

Barb compares stories to wine, beginning with the fact that not every wine drinker likes every wine. From there she delves into myriad aspects of being a wine connoisseur, some of them new to me. Never clear before on the virtues of aged wine, for instance.

What is this got to do with stories? Barb is making a case for the virtues of aged stories. This inspired by On Spec deciding to reprint a classic Robert Silverberg story. Overall she makes the case it is foolish and short-sighted for a writer to ignore previous incarnations of our continuously evolving genre. Blanket dismissal is a form of ignorance. There is so much to learn. I agree.

FICTION:

The Next Waltz – by Mike Rimar

Premise:

A man crippled by ill health and loneliness determines to end his life by stepping off a subway platform into the path of a moving train.

Review:

 I’ve never been suicidal so the thoughts that crowd the man’s head as he prepares to kill himself are not ones I can readily identify with. Nevertheless, his train of thought strikes me as utterly convincing, as a logical exercise in rationalization and self-justification typical of a person tired of enduring a life full of suffering both mental and physical. People in that state have no problem reinforcing their worst fears and despair. As someone who suffered extreme depression for most of my life off and on I know what I’m talking about. (I’m okay now. As best I can tell I simply grew out of that habitual frame of mind.)

Our ability to rationalize can be a curse because it is allied with our tendency to wallow in whatever rut we have chosen as our only path. It usually takes something akin to a miracle, something that jolts us out of our rut, to force our imagination to think positively. Sadly, we mere humans are often reluctant to indulge in that kind of paradigm shift, so familiar do we become with our misery that we can’t believe in an alternative even when fate offers it to us.

This story reminds me of Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann. In this case the supernatural element Is uplifting and hopeful if one but has the courage to grasp it. Rimar explores the struggle in depth. Makes for a fascinating, and believable, conundrum. Well done.

Grandpa’s Eye on the Afterlife – by Chris Kuriata

Premise:

 Grandpa’s dead, but his eye still functions.

Review:

 An interesting take on life after death. More than that, an original take. It doesn’t take place in our reality. There are fantasy and possibly supernatural aspects which have nothing to do with an afterlife but exist to render the premise feasible. This works.

We are offered only a glimpse of the afterlife. What you see is dependant on the eye of the beholder. (One of my inadvertent puns?) The story is both reassuring and horrifying. Frankly, I’m glad I don’t live in that reality. I’m a bit too squeamish. Must admit the perspectives offered on death and the afterlife are quite intriguing, though. I’m impressed by the level of originality.

One sidenote: There’s such a thing as bra lint? I didn’t know.

Capricorn Games – by Robert Silverberg

Premise:

Nikki is excited. It’s her birthday. She’s now twenty-four and she’s been invited to a party to which a man one thousand years old has also been invited. She hopes to seduce him. Could be her path to immortality.

Review:

Written in 1972, the story takes place in the not-too-distant future of 1999. Most of the characters are impulsively self-indulgent to the point of not even thinking about consequences. A tendency to accept and consume drugs without caring what they are and what they do, for instance. The social scene described might strike a prude as futuristic but in fact reflects normal human behaviour in the grand scheme of things. Most of the party attendees are super-rich or super-famous but otherwise resemble people I’ve met in the course of my life. Going out of your way to impress people or to seduce people is quite common, really.

There are elements of futurism, or fantasy. The drugs accomplish things current drugs do not, as far as I know. A mind reader can actually read minds, and then some. And the chap who has lived a thousand years is still going strong and eager to spread his good health to worthy acolytes. All this against a background of the world coming to an end, with survival increasingly dependant on technology. Definitely an “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” aspect to the tale.

What I find off-putting is the emphasis on astrology, birth signs, and mysticism in general. In a sense this is a “what if?” story where what I regard as “the usual pretentious nonsense,” which one encounters in “break-the-ice” conversations where large numbers of strangers are meeting for the first time, is being presented as reality rather than flimflam and hype. Magic and mysticism as scientific phenomena to be taken for granted instead of being merely a sociological aspect of psychology (as I interpret such).

This is a brilliant concept. It turns the shallowness of the stereotypical “cocktail party” upside down. It’s like waking up the next morning, not only suffering from a hangover, but with the realization “Oh my god, all those poseurs were genuine! No wonder I’ve been turned into a newt!”

Personally, I view the sort of party described, even shorn of it’s fantasy elements, as a nightmare, a horror show. Too much pretention. I prefer the kind of parties my science fiction club used to throw. Our mantra tended to be “everybody drink and have fun.” Frankly, the kind of “sophisticated” game of one-upmanship exhibited at the celebrity affair in this story would bore me. I ain’t no sophisticate.

Ultimately, though, this is a story about vulnerability. The young protagonist is using her beauty as a ticket to immortality, and virtually all the men she meets at the party are focused on using her body in other ways. I suspect this story is far more meaningful to female readers, because women run this gauntlet all the time, not just at parties. Easier for them to identify with Nikki.

This story could be construed as a parody of “high-society” partying, but really it’s a commentary on trendy hedonism, applicable to any era, which raises the question “Do you really want to waste your life? Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your own destiny?

At one level fun to read, yes, but on another, intensely thought-provoking. It’s a good story.

Sugar Moths – by Danielle Burnette

Premise:

A woman discovers a late night diner. It discovers her.

Review:

This appears to be urban fantasy. I’m a bit vague on literary definitions—I’m of the “science fiction is what I point at and call science fiction” school of thought. My finger tends to waver when pointing at such as “urban fantasy” or “magic realism.”

Anyway, this falls into the “lost souls who come together” meme. The regulars at the diner all suffer from insomnia, and incomplete lives in which something is missing. Most of the time the regulars ignore one another. The waitress Ellen is what they have in common, and the magnificent pie specials she serves.

To call it a ghost story would be incorrect. It is more about a lingering influence, magical or supernatural, which adds a quiet life component which everyone sorely needs. The regulars grow to depend on it, which is why they come night after night. The drama derives from a threat to their routine, and how everyone attempts to cope with that threat and any potential consequences.

An underlying theme has to do with the underlying dread which habitual guilt imposes on any and all sensitive to their own regrets. The story offers a path to better thoughts. It’s not a practical solution. I have yet to eat pie which rearranges my thinking in terms of improved emotional health (though the occasional dish of ice cream has worked wonders), but that’s the comment of someone way too literal-minded.

I think, metaphorically speaking, this story evokes mood and how a change in mood, in the perspectives triggered by a new mood, can render life more bearable. Up to each of us to find our own pie, so to speak.

Despite tension, drama, and a spate of violence, this is actually a rather gentle story. I think some troubled souls would find this useful and inspiring to read. Might even be life-changing.

Flies in the Fibres – by Roxanne Klimek

Premise:

This gated community has been gated from the outside. It’s under quarantine. No one goes out. No one goes in. What to do when the food runs out?

Review:

Quite the contrast with the previous story. This is a knock-down, no-holds-barred horror story. It’s not the growing food shortage which inspires fear. All fresh food, such as vegetables in your garden or pets and livestock, is poisoned. To eat is to die. You can’t even eat the maggots thriving on dead things. They’re poisoned too.

This is a story about the limits of selflessness and altruism, the limits of love for that matter, and how dire circumstances changes everything you take for granted about yourself. You know, deep in your soul, you would never, ever do what the main characters in this story are driven to do. But that’s the point. They are driven to betraying their heartfelt beliefs. They have no choice. And neither would you if trapped in the same situation.

The story is relentless. Just when you are certain the worst is happening, the story takes it up a notch. Took me by surprise, but yeah, given the context, it makes perfect sense, which makes it even more horrifying. One of the most impactful, powerful horror stories I’ve read in years. Definitely a tour deforce, a masterpiece of its kind. You want horror? This story delivers.

Makes me darn glad I’m having kraft dinner with tuna tonight. That I can handle.

Rec and Dec – by Andy W. Yaylor

Premise:

Maria caused the death of her fellow crewmembers through sloppy dereliction of duty. Demoted, she’s assigned a job at the spaceship salvage yard. No possible way to ruin her reputation further is there?

Review:

This is old-fashioned pulp science fiction, which means it has vast appeal for me. The gist of the story has to do with juggling the needs of a hostile supervisor vs. the needs of a clueless cadet who badly needs brains, never mind training, but that’s not what holds my attention. Being assigned to cleanse a wreck of harmless space vermin who turn out to be behaving in an unexpected manner contrary to their normal, predictable habits is what intrigues me.

I mean, if you’re a rat exterminator, and the rats in the derelict building are behaving as if they’re not rats, it’s more than curiosity which motivates your quest for the nest. Could be your life is at stake.

In a way, this is another horror story, but a fun one. Call it light entertainment. I enjoyed it.

Elesa’s Eyes – by Elizabeth Whitton

Premise:

Sosa is a tracker. She finds  people. Which is another way of saying she tracks trouble.

Review:

 This is a much more modern tale. It has cyberpunk vibes. Hard-edged, to be sure. But it’s not derivative. There are many original elements. And just like cyberpunk, this story’s ancestors include the heavy-duty detective fiction of the past, and film noir. So, naturally I enjoyed reading it. I like this kind of fiction.

The setting is harsh. People lead harsh lives. And success can only be measured in nihilistic terms. Doesn’t matter who you run with. Everybody betrays you eventually, even you, even life itself. Still, every now and then, you can permit yourself an emotional tear. Just don’t let anybody see it. Can’t afford to appear weak, even for a second. Much like going to prison, in fact. In the world portrayed in this story, life is a prison. Death is the only jail break.

I’m impressed with how hard-boiled Sosa is. Dashiell Hammett would be delighted. So, too, William Gibson. I can see this character meriting a series of her own, or even a film or two. But not like the cardboard character in the Resident Evil movies. Sosa is infinitely more complex, infinitely more tragic, and infinitely more believable. Still, I don’t envy her. A trapped, driven life. But she knows it’s not yet time to give up. Hence my hope she will reappear in further adventures.

Reading this story was a delight. It’s very cool.

Little Wild Girls – by Halle Gulbrandson

Premise:

Maddy is driving her older sister for one last outing in the forest where they both can run on all fours and catch prey to eat it raw. By morning Jasmine will turn nineteen and her body fur will slough away. Jasmine will lead a happy-enough life as a young woman, but already Maddy feels a sense of loss. She expects to feel worse when it happens to her.

Review:

Young boys don’t lead such wild lives. Only girls. Generally boys leave them alone, out of fears over their passion and strength, not to mention claws and teeth, until they transform into something prim and proper and dutiful. No need to tame them. The transformation has made them tame. Then and only then do young men pursue them in the usual way for the usual reasons. Up till then the girls had experienced total freedom. Turning nineteen changes everything.

I may be seventy but I still remember sitting with my neighbourhood buddies and discussing girls and sex and all the mushy stuff. None of us knew anything. We were hoping one of us knew something. We assumed the guys with sisters could give some answers but no, they were as clueless as the rest of us.

The first Barbie Doll had just come out, so this would have been in early 1959 when I was eight years old. We heard that the Barbie Dolls “showed everything” so we talked one of us into “borrowing” his sister’s Barbie. Didn’t work. She was several years older and beat him up (sort of) when she caught him trying to sneak it out of the house. Since he had named names we avoided her for quite some time. But then, the boys and girls tended to play in separate groups anyway. There really was a great divide.

As we all know, puberty tends to reboot everyone’s mindset. In most cases the opposite sex becomes attractive and socializing with same a high priority. Unfortunately, raging hormones don’t make the quest simple or easy. Nobody knows angst like a teenager knows angst. We all learn. We all mature (I think), but the length of time it takes to truly become an adult varies. It can take years, decades even.

Not having children of my own, the only thing I know about what it’s like to grow up as a girl is what I’ve read or been told. I suspect post-puberty maturing is quite the challenge for both boys and girls (for all genders for that matter). Many people find their experience traumatic, often scarring them for life it seems. For others it’s a process of self-revelation and discovering one’s true identity. Out of teenage angst can grow confidence, or despair. Luck of the draw.

Point is I don’t view this story as a metaphor for the consequences of undergoing puberty, though certain negative results are implied. Rather, I think of it as an expression of regret over lost innocence, over lost freedoms. A wistful regret, a nostalgic regret. If there is such a thing, a positive regret.

I’ve always clung to memories of my childhood as a sort of lost paradise from which I derive strength and even a sense of accomplishment. This has helped see me through hard times, because those memories served as a reminder it is possible to be happy. In a similar fashion I believe this story will particularly resonate with women readers who have been able to rely on such memories to reinforce and bolster their adult lives.

To sum up, this story is a reminder why it is so important for parents to love their children. Their future will be based in part on the environment you create for them when they are under your care. Let them live lives full of joy. Because once they hit puberty, all bets are off. Believe me, in later life happy memories are needful and necessary. If there are none, well, that’s tragic. I think this story offers an important lesson.

Just as an aside, as a child I never ran on all fours. I did, however, function as a tripod. I’d tuck one leg underneath me and go lickety-split. This was my intermediate stage between crawling and walking. Have memories of this. Seems I was partly a wild child.

Riddle of the Sphinx Revisited – (Poem) by Rhea Rose

Premise:

The Sphinx (not the one by the Pyramids, but the Greek version) is aware of  the modern world.

Review:

The Sphinx knows the answer to her riddle. Do we still remember the question? There are important reasons to try. The true riddle of the Sphinx is more relevant than ever. A thought-provoking poem.

NON-FICTION:

Artist Interview with Dan O’Driscoll

Short but interesting, with some wonderful examples of his art.

Author Interview with Halle Gulbrandson – by Cat Mcdonald

Includes some fascinating comments on the writing of Little Wild Girls which, I like to believe, indicates my interpretation isn’t totally out of left field. Also contains her thoughts on the writing process which are of interest to everyone who writes and to anyone intrigued by how writers write. One thing I’ve learned, every writer is different. That’s why her advice to write true to your own voice is so valuable.

Bots and Comics – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

“Steampunk Wizbot” & “Ancestors.” Good fun these, as always.

CONCLUSION:

 Once again, an incredible variety of genre fiction. Always a pleasure to read On Spec.

Check it out at:  < On Spec 117 >

 

 

 

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