CLUBHOUSE: Review: Speculative North Magazine #5

A review of the latest issue of Speculative North magazine

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

SPECULATIVE NORTH issue #5, Vol. 2 No. 2. July, 2021.

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

Editors: Lead Editor David F. Shultz; Fiction Editor Don Miasek; Articles Editor Andy Dibble; Poetry Editor W.T. Anderson.

Cover Art: J.P. Targete.

FICTION:

The Woman Who Married the Snow – by Ken Altabef

Premise:

 The body of Toonookyah is discovered in the winter ice. His grieving widow Amaaqtuq asks the Shaman Ulruk to bring him back to life. Out of an abundance of pity, Ulruk is tempted.

Review:

 This is a finely-crafted story which flows smoothly despite a premise impossible to the literal-minded. Bringing back the dead always has consequences. That’s what makes this a horror story. But not the kind of horror a lumbering Golem or Frankenstein monster delivers, and certainly not the creepy horror a horde of zombies generates. This is a psychological horror story. It’s all about the pain and complexities of grief. Is a sense of completion ever possible, or is mourning never-ending? Journey or perpetual disaster? This story explores these questions.

One thing in particular struck me. I’m not religious, but have always been attracted to the idea that every existing thing, inanimate or not, possesses a life-force or spirit. A reassuring concept somehow, and probably humanity’s oldest and earliest religion. I never stopped to think through all the implications. That snow possesses this same quality never occurred to me. That a Shaman can communicate with snow is a wonderfully understated way to frame the questions examined in the story. It adds a gentle beauty to this tale of the inevitability of life and death.

Eating Opium from a Silver Cereal Box – by D.K. Latta

Premise:

 To save expenses, manned deep space probes have a crew of one. Who knew meeting aliens could be so boring?

Review:

The aliens like to save on expenses too. It’s rare to meet one. The AI handles all the communication anyway. There’s no drama. Docking with an alien spacecraft and meeting its inhabitant is just an annoying break in an annoying routine. There’s no gosh-wow-oh-boy-oh-boy sense of wonder in space exploration whatsoever.

That’s what I like about this story. It exposes the dirty secret of deep space exploration, that it forces individuals to rely on their internal resources once the grand design of a mission palls. Cabin fever doesn’t even begin to describe it. And there’s an even dirtier secret which is typical of life today which I don’t want to get into because it would give too much away.

I’ll just say a remarkably large number of people today experience the same problem Crewman Markham faces and deal with it in nearly identical fashion. This is a major part of what prevents us from progressing to Utopia. Yep. The main problem with expanding throughout the galaxy is us. We’re not designed for it. In terms of describing our future efforts this is one of the most realistic stories I have ever read. Sobering. Seems we have built-in limitations. Oh, well. Let AI handle the task.

To You, My Time Loop – by Connor Mellegers

Premise:

Adrian relives the same day over and over in the life of someone else. He is desperate to escape.

Review:

I suppose this is something like the movie Groundhog Day but I can’t say for sure because I’ve never seen that film. The story seems to imply that more-or-less the same thing happens every day, in that every event is tiresome to Adrian having experienced it before, yet he keeps trying to initiate random actions in the hope it will break the spell or lock or whatever it is that has condemned him to the loop.

Unusually, the story is told in second person format, the reader being the “you.” In a way this is an advantage, in that the reader is as ignorant as the point of view character, experiences the same level of surprise as matters develop, and thus easily identifies with that character. Since the story is from your point of view, of course you are drawn into the story. Grabbed into the story, more like it.

In a way, this story is a companion piece to the previous one, as both are about feeling trapped in an undesirable reality. There are many potential solutions to this problem. This story offers a different solution.

The point of view character I don’t fully identify with. If it were genuinely me, I’d be a lot more confused, a lot more frantic, and a lot more desperate to find out what is going on. I’d think too much, in fact. Probably go bonkers. Probably, ultimately, come to the same decision though.

Since this story is really about “you,” what intrigues you as the reader is the puzzle of trying to figure out what you should do to resolve the situation. It is quite successfully a very interactive story in that sense.

Túshuguan – by Eric Choi

Premise:

Our high tech civilization has collapsed. A young boy named Wu discovers a book in a hidden place. Archaeologist Dr. Zhéng is intrigued.

Review:

Always a pleasure to read a post-apocalyptic vision of Vancouver, B.C., where I lived for so many decades. Well, not amid the ruins. You know what I mean.

The advantage of a young boy’s point of view is that it combines boundless curiosity with acceptance of the way things are. What strikes us as horrific Wu takes for granted. This combination both sets the scene, rendering it real, and justifies his motivation. A very useful combination. His character serves the story well.

The ending is odd, or perhaps I should say unexpected. Not at all what I anticipated. Original in fact. Modern readers can be rather smug and complacent when visualizing future efforts to survive in a derelict world as there have been so many variations presented in print and on screen. This ending took me by surprise. The author reminds us we are not as predictable a species as some of us tend to think.

At the same time, I have the impression there’s a bit of literary commentary involved, almost a sort of in-joke among CanLit fans, to the point of this story being a parody of the book Wu finds. But not having read said book, I’m not sure.

This is a stand-alone story packing a powerful punch. Could be the identity of the book in question adds a frisson of amusement, an extra layer as it were. But even without that, it’s a good story in itself. I enjoyed it.

Getaway – by Thomas J. Griffin

Premise:

The authorities are after Joe. After all, it’s criminal to use unauthorized portals.

Review:

A very short story. Not much too it. But it makes use of what I suspect is a common childhood fantasy and therefore is rather charming.

Think Twice Before Possession – by Amy Lywander

Premise:

What happens when not one but two demons decide to reside in your local high school?

Review:

 Its been over half a century since I attended high school, but the innocent sexual politics in this story seem realistic enough to serve as parody. And certainly there were a few authority figures on staff who approached the ferocity of the most intimidating demon. “Horse-face Cunningham” is one example I remember. That’s what students called him. Never to his face though.

And then there’s the humour inherent in a demon out of his league through accepting a foolish dare. Demons can make mistakes too.

It seems to me that certain aspects of the presence of the demons would stir the interests of outside authorities, but this is light-weight amusing fantasy designed to elicit chuckles and it would be a mistake to take it seriously. Light-hearted fun I calls it, and appreciate it as such.

Dead, Deer  – by S.K. Brownell

Premise: 

 Apparently the world has come to an end and two men are the only survivors, endlessly climbing a mountain and struggling to survive.

Review:

That the climb is endless makes me think this extremely short story is a metaphor for life. They appear to be very close, possibly lovers, so possibly the metaphor has to do with surviving in a world that is largely anti-gay. But it may be I am reading too much into the story.

At any rate it seems to consider life a process dependant on exploiting death, as in utilizing rotting deer carcasses to entice edible critters within reach in order to kill them and acquire fresh meat. What this says about human life in general I have no idea.

Both men are tired of the struggle, yet they carry on regardless. I suppose that’s as good a definition of life as any. Not an optimistic story. Not amusing. Not entertaining. But interesting. A vignette depicting the human condition. But not mine thank you very much. I’m doing much better than these guys. I’m happy as hell compared to them. Perhaps that’s the point of the story. Your life could be worse. You could be like these two. But you’re not, so lighten up! In that sense, a useful story.

One thing for sure, it reinforces my dislike of both hunting and mountain climbing. Nice to be confirmed in my habits.

Humans ‘n’ Hotdogs  – by Melissa Yuan-Innes

Premise: 

 An alien graduate student (studying sociology? Earthology?) takes up selling hot dogs on a street corner in Toronto as a way of studying humans.

Review:

It should have studied business. There’s a lot more to selling than attempting to undercut the competition across the street. And there’s a lot more to human behaviour and complexity than a naive alien can imagine. We’re hard to predict. Still, unexpected results aren’t necessarily a problem so much as a bonus. The kind of thing which makes a Professor sit up and take notice. Even aliens are keen on success.

Definitely an amusing story. Nothing cathartic. It’s all good for a chuckle.

Send in the Ninjas – by Michelle Ann King

Premise:

 Isabel has trouble making decisions. Unfortunately her sister Mattie has invented something which turns everything, absolutely everything, into a multiple choice question.

Review:

 The invention allows people to tap into alternate realities in order to reach a consensus. Of course that’s a bad idea. Consulting multiple variations of yourself is even worse.

I suppose this story was written to comment on how mindbogglingly complex life has become and how difficult it is to navigate your way through it. Nothing less than a three dimensional mine field. There’s nowhere to turn for answers because all you discover is more questions. It puts me in mind of the problem some people with eidetic memories have. One memory or impression reminds them of a dozen others which in turn etc. to the point of driving them to live lives of utter solitude and simplicity in an effort to avoid becoming a mental kaleidoscope. With modern life this can happen to anybody.

This story made me very antsy and uncomfortable. I suppose the two-fold point of the story is 1) stop thinking, and 2, make up your bloody mind! You’ll be much happier if you follow this advice. Consequently, yet another useful story. It might have been designed to be amusing, but it put me in a bit of a cold sweat. Definitely a horror story in my opinion. Reminds me I want to steer clear of this kind of mindset.

Fortunately, being a 20th century sort of chap, I have a head start on being immune. But I need to remain vigilant. Very important to shut down my mind as often as possible. Hence my tendency to declare “do nothing” days. Keeps me happy. A constantly overactive mind is a nightmare. I prefer sweet dreams. (Yes, I’m an intellectual coward. How do you think I survived to be seventy? I enjoy peace of mind.)

Anyway, this story makes the reader think. Is that good or bad? Depends.

 Housebound and Wife – by Michelle Tang

Premise:

 Jenna misses her dead husband. Fortunately, the house hologram servant is a perfect visual representation of her beloved. Unfortunately, the two of them are not alone.

Review:

 It is entirely probably people will live among holograms amounting to simulacrums of their deceased loved ones. This is the futuristic aspect of the story. Alas, human nature guarantees individuals with warped motives will take advantage of such futuristic technology as soon as they can figure out how to do it. That’s the horror aspect of this story. So, this is both science fiction and horror and a very successful blend it is.

The actual resolution depends on a “use” of hologram technology that had not occurred to me before. How plausible it is depends on the sophistication of that technology. It is something not credible today, but could well be in the near future, so I buy it. As to Jenna’s ultimate fate I’d say that depends on the hologram too.

A sudden thought. If holograms ever become as realistic and interactive as the one portrayed in the story, the demand for living pets could disappear. After all, companionship without the need for a litter box. Although, come to think of it, maybe holograms of pets would offer the same advantage. Hmm, that’s the trouble with advancing technology. Less and less need for living things.

Anyway, in some respects the story is very old-fashioned, being an intruder-in-the-house scenario, but with a level of futurism which elevates the suspense to something new and different. Will creep some readers out I’m sure. Yet another reminder that people who put their faith in the future are entirely too trusting of good old human nature. We never change. Futurists sometimes forget that.

 POETRY:

Travel Advisory – by Jackie Craven

Premise:

 Watch out for the local lore-keepers.

Review:

 Foreigners in foreign lands may turn out to be not quite the same as you and I.

 Cyborg Sister – by Jackie Craven

Premise:

 Mom and dad fashioned a Cyborg Sister for you.

Review:

 It might have been better if they had just bought you a pony.

NON-FICTION:

Interview with Brian Koukol by Andy Dibble

Brian has muscular dystrophy and uses voice recognition software to write. He has a lot of very interesting things to say. For one thing, he feels “The vast majority of media involving disability comes from people who aren’t disabled and are mostly interested in using disability as a lazy plot device.” His advice to writers in order to solve this problem? “Talk to an actual disabled person!” Something that many writers never think to do.

He says a great deal more about the subtle nuances of disability which almost never appear in fictional characters. He feels writers are missing myriad opportunities for expression and characterization when they ignore the complex realities the disabled face on a daily basis. “Disability is both a gift and a curse… honestly, I don’t know why everyone isn’t writing about it.” Frankly, I consider this an important interview which every writer needs to read.

Which is another way of saying people should read Brian Koukol’s writings. I haven’t, but I’m left with the impression they are as eye-opening and enlightening as this interview.

Also, he possesses great clarity of thought and expression; I suspect he would make a splendid role model for any writer. And his general advice to writers is worth reading as well.

CONCLUSION:

 The usual good mixture, one maintaining a high standard indeed. Excellent issue. Thought provoking. It’s a magazine I always look forward to reading. You should too.

Check it out at:  <  Speculative North #5 >

 

 

 

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