CLUBHOUSE: Review: On Spec Magazine #122

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

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #122, Vol. 32 No. 4.

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

Issue Designer: Jerry LePage. Poetry Editors: Charlie Crittenden, and Celine Low.

Fiction Editors: Barb Galler-Smith, Virginia O’Dine, Constantine Kaoukakis, Susan MacGregor, Ann Marston, Laurie Penner, A.J. Wells, Diane L. Walton, Dan Gyoba, Greg Mitchell, Ethan Zou, Alyssa Kulchinsky, Celine Low, Lareina Abbott, Cheryl Merkel, and Jade Mah-Vierling.

Cover Art: “Judy and the Dinosaur Rockers” – by Ken Macklin

Editorial: The Power of Speculative Fiction to Offer Hope – by Lareina Abbott

Review:

Extremely interesting article on three topics: denying and then embracing one’s ethnicity, will ethnicity perish as future generations “weaken” ethnic origins, and can writers encompass ethnicity beyond their own without cultural appropriation. Anyone contemplating these matters owes it to themselves to read this editorial.

FICTION:

Fire Flows Downhill – by Alex Langer

Premise:

The citizens of Breshaar rule the world through their pact with the Dragon, child of the Creator Gods. They think they will rule forever.

Review:

The people of Norooni are tolerated in Breshaar as useful barbarians. They constitute a much-despised resident alien class, permitted to work for the Breshaari but confined to a walled ghetto at night. The Norooni profess to be delighted with their plight, but deep inside they hate Breshaar and dream of its downfall.

After all, Breshaari economic power is limitless. They have a monopoly of absolute control over every industry, profession, and resource. All wealth concentrates in Breshaar. The rest of the world lives in abject poverty, subsisting but barely. Fortunately, the Breshaari have grown decadent and complacent. Time to topple them off their pinnacle.

Four Narooni are permitted to leave the city to go fishing. Led by Mel, they seem like harmless labourers. In fact, they have been trained by the Narooni underground as spies and saboteurs. Their research has unveiled fatal flaws in the Breshaari pact with the Dragon. They mean to put an end to that pact. All they have to do is climb the sacred mountain and confront the Dragon. Trouble is, nobody knows if the Dragon still exists.

In a way, the four Norooni are revolutionaries following a utopian dream of the way the world should be. Most revolutions are betrayed by their own success. Others fail because their view of reality turned out to be an artificial construct ignoring human nature. Too ideologically artsy-fartsy in other words. In short, revolutionaries often carry the seeds of their own disillusionment. There’s more than life at risk here. Motives are heart-felt but somewhat simplistic and meaningless. Anybody can be a freedom-fighter, but how to define freedom? Philosophers have been trying to figure that out for thousands of years. Haven’t come up with a definitive answer yet.

As a larger question, are superpowers best toppled from within? Is that how you defeat globalization? Crumble the overweening pride of the nation which believes it deserves to rule the world? Is this a metaphor depicting America? In which case, who do the Norooni represent, exactly? Loaded questions. Attempting to interpret this story in modern terms immediately takes on the baggage of contemporary politics.

In truth this quest story is a fascinating character study of conflicted individuals, with the city-state of Breshaar being one of the “individuals.” Basic lesson? Nothing is as simple as you want it to be.

We Come in Peace  – (Poem) by Thomas Mixon

Premise:

The mother of all computing glitches.

Review:

Turns out to be planned. For what purpose?

I’ll Have My Toast With Jam, PLease – by Andrea Bernard

Premise:

What do you do when your toaster starts talking to you?

Review:

The woman with the talking toaster is on her meds and in control of her life so has nothing to report to her psychiatrist. So familiar is she with psychiatric buzz-talk she assumes the toaster isn’t actually talking to her, that it’s merely her subconscious intruding to deliver warnings. Quite handy really. Trouble is the dire circumstances to stay clear of keep getting worse. Is her inner mind abnormally prescient? Or is it the toaster? She can’t figure out how to analyse her way out of this conundrum. One thing is certain. For someone who may be going insane, she is remarkably sane. This reassures her and keeps her from despair as things spiral out of control.

This is a neat, compact story without any wasted words. It flows smoothly toward a logical ending that satisfies despite being both sad and hopeful. It has the feel of a detective story in that the woman is attempting to solve the mystery of “the voice” with logic and common sense rather than dissolve into emotional upheaval. Going insane, something she’s done before, isn’t that big a deal to her. She’s more interested in developing a coping mechanism in order to carry on as normal a life as possible. I find this refreshingly original. Hints at a useful technique for dealing with depressive and self-doubting thoughts. As someone who used to suffer from extreme depression, I can’t help but think this story has therapeutic value. Well worth reading. Entertaining, yes, but with a positive, upbeat underlying message.

Blister – by Judy Helfrich

Premise:

What if your emotions form detachable blisters?

Review:

 Stanzia is betrayed by her husband, who has taken a lover. She grows a blister of venom swelling with regret and rage. When she slaps it on his neck it becomes permanent, and his emotional life wilts under the storm of her feelings. He leaves her.

Now she grows numerous blisters on her neck, some of regret, some of childhood nostalgia, many of varied and subtle emotions. Quite a few are pretty to look at. She opens a gallery with each blister attached to a separate canvas. She allows needful patrons to slap on a blister at no charge. Their lives are transformed. She is relatively happy now, till the day her husband returns…

In reading this story much depends on how you feel about blisters. Very much surreal medical imagery. I’m reminded of David Cronenberg films with their distorted cancer obsessions. Not very pleasant, to be sure.

And yet, this is a remarkable story. The blisters are defined sets of emotions, and metaphors for the same discreet packets of feelings writers freely distribute in works inspired by their personal experiences. The same could be said of artists. In essence this story is a demonstration of how creative individuals transform their life episodes, painful or pleasurable, into a communication sharing the lessons and observations they deem worth sharing. The very process of creativity stands revealed here in the most visceral sense imaginable. Really quite amazing.

Compassion Fatigue – by David Tallerman

Premise:

Paul has the power to heal people. Nobody cares.

Review:

Not quite true. He has a small band of followers who look after him. But they don’t constitute a cult. They just feel sorry for him and his vulnerabilities. Loyal friends, that’s all.

Healers have existed in hordes for thousands of years. If they were genuine, hospitals would be empty. One healer, Jesus, is greatly revered as the son of God by many with faith, but his healing power has more to do with the salvation of the human race rather than any given individual’s physical woes. Nevertheless, healers are often associated with divine power of some sort. Perhaps they are just walking, talking placebos. All a matter of belief systems and personal faith.

Point is any genuine healer would automatically be inundated, even drowned, by pre-conceived assumptions and expectations of the desperate. One wonders how the Sermon on the Mount would be treated if it had first been delivered in this modern age of social media and influencers. Paul avoids all such problems by functioning as a recluse even when immersed in the act of healing. Thus, people make use of him, but don’t relate to him or learn from him. He has nothing to teach. He just heals. This takes its toll.

Zahid is a conflicted man reluctantly drawn into Paul’s limited circle. He believes and he doesn’t believe. He questions but is afraid to find answers. He doesn’t know if Paul’s friendship is a blessing or a curse. He’s all messed up.

This story explores the concept of healing. Nothing is taken for granted. What IS healing anyway? How do you define it? What are its needs, costs, and consequences? How do you cope with being healed? An interesting debate, indeed. Made me view healing in ways I’d never thought of before.  A philosophical story. Much to contemplate. Rather original, methinks.

Loaner Bodies – by Aaron Perry

Premise:

Aliens borrow people for seven years but are polite enough to leave clones in their place.

Review:

A delightful short story only three pages in length which nevertheless packs quite a punch. A surprising amount of emotional turmoil is explored, leading to an unexpected twist when the seven years are up. I quite enjoyed the conundrum and its resolution.

Rapunzel in the Desert – (Poem) by Melissa Yuan-Innes

Premise:

The Prince made it to the top of the tower. What if he didn’t make it down?

Review:

There’s more to life than a quickie. Rapunzel makes the most of it. As a result, the basic fable is lifted into the realm of mythology. Pleasingly ingenious.

Botman’s Tale – by Liz Westbrook-Trenholm

Premise:

Bottom has been commanded by the Faerie Queen to retrieve her infant daughter from a mundane home of refuge in order to present her to her father, the King. Trouble is daughter Clairie has grown into a 21st-century teenager who doesn’t believe in fairy tales. This complicates matters.

Review:

This is a spritely tale filled with humour, a comedy of the absurd. Each attempt by Bottom to carry out his mission ends in increasingly spectacular failure. Not only are the human parents beginning to have their suspicions, there’s a risk human authorities may get involved. To a modern teenager, magical powers are poor CGI at best. Clairie is not impressed.

Poor Bottom. The Faerie Queen is wise and wonderful, but never forgives. Failure is not an option. What’s an ass-eared supernatural to do?

This is a rollicking good tale. I was grinning from beginning to end. Nice to see A Midsummer

Night’s Dream inspire one of the most entertaining stories I’ve read in a long time.

Hmm, I wonder what Liz Westbrook-Trenholm would make of King Lear…?

Acceptance – by E.A. Mylonas

Premise:

A woman lives simultaneously in the past, present, and future. Focusing is very important.

Review:

The story details her life with her husband. He’s very frustrated. She’s the one person she has revealed her secret to and yet she won’t answer any of his questions. The point is driven home that it is better for him not to know what lies ahead. Drives him nuts.

She’s frustrated, too. She already knows what their next argument will be about. It’s a bit like the movie Groundhog Day, except that every day in her life is being experienced simultaneously. Is it a form of immortality with each moment being lived perpetually? Or just a holistic glance at an incredible mosaic of incidents? Depends on which interpretation appeals most. It’s a wonder she isn’t driven totally mad.

Every possible permutation of the problems in the couple’s relationship is explored, but really the story is an exercise in coping with fate as it happens. This is something we all do one way or another. Or at least attempt to do. My solution? Concentrate on fulfilling my destiny till fate catches up to me first. Life is more fun that way.

This is also a philosophical story, but not open-ended, not for me. Some may find it depressing, but I find it uplifting as it confirms my opinion that ignorance is a needful and useful coping mechanism. As an example of a complex story driving home an important message, it is brilliant. Well done.

The Yellow House – by Jonathan Lenore Kastin

Premise:

The parents want to move to some delightful far-off home. Their daughter Lydia doesn’t.

Review:

A short fantasy speaking to sense of place, permanent nostalgia, and wishful thinking. How often do adults drift into memories of their childhood bedroom and its comforting delights? I know I do. But would I want to go back? Live that innocence over again? No.

However, not a question of having to grow up sooner or later. As H.P. Lovecraft once remarked, “genuine artists never grow up.” I have a lot more toys now. Am quite pleased to be well into my second childhood. I understand Lydia, but I don’t identify with her. She’s stuck in her ways and ignorant of the endless possibilities to expand childhood beyond its mere beginnings.

On one level this is a bit of a horror fantasy with a poignant bite. On another, fair to say this story encourages the reader to reassess their life. That be a good thing. At least in my case.

Quirks – by Arinn Dembo

Premise:

Rachael is a Quirk, an atypical who can utilize names of people and things for magic purposes. Unfortunately, this merits a death sentence. She is being hunted.

Review:

All Quirks, no matter what powers they were born with, no matter how beneficial their powers, are being hunted to extinction. It is as if the human race has declared war on all super idiot-savants, on anyone on the autism scale, on anyone who is different.

Sad truth is it is quite common for people different from the typical to be treated as pariahs, sometimes overtly, sometimes with cruel subtlety. As a measure of intolerance, there is potentially no end to it, as all of us as individuals are in fact unique and different from one another. Hence the tendency to seek refuge in the common herd and join in denouncing the “enemy” of the moment. Fear drives hate. Demagogues know and exploit this.

In real life people who are proudly and visibly different often endure harassment and prejudice. I believe the intent of this story is to extrapolate such experience in fantasy terms designed to encourage the reader to empathise and root for the underdog. In other words, a plea for tolerance and a protest against hidebound social attitudes that are harmful and… well… just plain evil.

A moral-lesson story? Yes, but a convincing and powerful one, precisely because of the fantasy elements which go beyond description of autistic phenomena, which in fact serve to reinforce and enhance them. Imagination harnessed to convey the reality behind reality, so to speak. Makes for a remarkable tale.

NON-FICTION:

“Shut up!” She Explained: Author Interview with Liz Westbrook-Trenholm – by Roberta Laurie.

Liz has written dark and complicated stories in the past, but Botman’s Tale was written as an antidote to the mood engendered by the Covid era. Good thing, too. It lifts the reader’s spirits.

Liz treats writing as a creative exercise that is worthwhile and rewarding. If the result is marketable that is the icing on the cake. A very healthy approach, one all writers should adopt. First and foremost, writing should be a pleasure.

“Art Heroes are People Too,” Artist Interview with Ken Macklin – by Cat Mcdonald

Ken likes to draw with pencil to conceptualize what he wants to create, then goes to digital. The online era is more positive than negative for artists, in his opinion. He used to depend on a large collection of art books as reference. Now there’s an infinite amount of art available.

He also makes the point there are numerous art courses online given by great artists. Sure, they cost a fair amount, but are no-where near as expensive as going to art school. Seems to imply the internet is a marvellous tool for artists be they beginners or established professionals. It all works for him. Nice to read such a positive assessment.

Lots of practical advice given. A must-read for artists of any stripe.

Comics & Bots: “Scrooge and Marley” & “Edgar” – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

The comic is a nice take on a beloved story, and the bot, as usual, endearingly amusing.

CONCLUSION:

A high level of originality evident in this issue. I enjoyed reading every item.

Check it out at:  < On Spec #122  >

 

 

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