Figure 1 – The Fragrance of Orchids Cover

Yeah, it’s been a while since my last column. We went to Norwescon in Seattle (SeaTac, actually) over the Easter weekend. It was, I understand, smaller than usual; only about 2500 people. I didn’t do much; I was there to hand out Amazing® Stories buttons, courtesy of Kermit Woodall, and to see people I usually don’t see—and I still missed seeing Frank Catalano. But I got to see Nels and Lisa Satterlund, John and Marilyn Hedtke, Paul Carpentier and Julie McGalliard, Marilyn Holt & Cliff Wind, Betty & David Bigelow, Chris and Jackie Nilsson, and several other people I look forward to seeing every couple of years. Plus I went to the Art Show (natch) and the Dealers’ Room, though I only spent $5 in that room on an Umbrella Corp. sticker for the car. So there’s that.

Figure 2 – Sally McBride, author

Anyway, Brain Lag Publishing, in the person of Catherine Fitzsimmons, has kindly sent me an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of an upcoming book—a short story collection by Sally McBride, for review (it’s coming out in July). Let me start off by saying that as a science fiction (and fantasy) reader, I absolutely love short stories. I’ve read ‘em, man and boy, since I was a preteen, and that’s nearly 65 years now. (Yes, I’m getting on. But who isn’t these days?) My goodness, I used to look forward—back in the day—to every Groff Conklin anthology I could find, like Invaders of Earth; to Fredric Brown collections, like Angels & Spaceships; to Fred Pohl-edited Star Science Fiction anthologies, to anything curated by Judith Merril. And later, people like Gardner Dozois—oh, I could name dozens of writers and editors who literally shaped my brain and life with short stories. But here’s the cherry on that particular sundae: this collection is by someone I’ve known for years and both like and respect! Here’s what Catherine has to say about Sally:

Sally McBride‘s haunting, mesmerizing short fiction has been captivating audiences for nearly forty years. It’s been published in Asimov’s, Amazing, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Northern Frights, Tesseracts, On Spec, and many more magazines, anthologies and ‘best-of’ collections. It’s won Canada’s Aurora Award and been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Her stories have been reprinted time and again.
McBride has taught fiction writing and edited speculative fiction, co-publishing the magazine TransVersions. Her previous novels include Indigo Time (Five Rivers Publishing), Water, Circle, Moon (Masque Books) and the recently released The Nightingale’s Tooth (Brain Lag, January 2023), which was critically acclaimed by Foreword Reviews and the Ottawa Review of Books and received a starred review in Booklist. Born and raised in Canada, Sally divides her time between Toronto and the mountains of Idaho where she enjoys skiing and hiking with her husband. She has several works in progress.”

This book, The Fragrance of Orchids and Other Stories, is the first time these 14 stories have been collected together. I’ve previously read, and enjoyed, only two of these. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers in this review.)

You won’t find hard SF concerned only with J.W. Campbell, Jr.-type fiction in this collection; every story is a people story, concerned with people and their interactions and reactions to extraordinary circumstances. It’s a great collection, in my less-than-humble opinion. Starting with a unique (and the temptation here is to qualify an adverb that never takes a qualifier, and say “very unique”) take on the alien invasion trope, in “Speaking Sea.” But the focus, again, is on the relationship between the protagonist and her husband, which influences and informs every decision she makes and, possibly, the direction of the invasion.

The second story, “Softlinks,” also deals with human interaction and, in this day when AI seems to be on every fan’s lips, might give us a clue as to how computers think. The interaction with AI is also the focus here.

“The Queen of Yesterday” is pure SF. It’s about a woman who studies bats, those furry little guys who occupy a distinct ecological niche (I find them fascinating too) that few mammals do, and perhaps has a closer link to them than she expected. Among the things that make this story—and the others—terrific is just the right amount of detail in time, place, scientific information and sensory input. Too much detail and you get “purple prose,” too little and the story has little impact. Sally manages to put just the right amount in each story.

“The Emperor of the Half-Garden” is another sort of invasion story. This one caught me by surprise, because I thought I knew where it was going. It might surprise you too.

The titular story, “The Fragrance of Orchids,” was one of the author’s early efforts, obviously written long before this year, because it’s set in 2023 and we have yet to send a spacecraft to Jupiter. It involves an alien found in a derelict spacecraft—a baby in a creche—that is very inhuman, but who is raised to think of herself as human. She may well be the last of her species and, as she matures, her relationship with her rescuers/captors changes. (I abhor the use of “race” to describe nonhuman characters—by dictionary definition, “race” applies to human beings only; but that’s just me. I’m what my younger sister would describe as CDO. That’s “OCD” in alphabetical order. But that’s just me.) But again, the story is about humans—even though this one is only “human” in outlook and intelligence.

“A Breath After Dying” is about invasion—but this time it’s humans invading a deserted world to take advantage of it. The protagonist wants to study the remaining artifacts before they, and what remains of the alien culture, are destroyed by a super-rich egotist who’s purchased the right to build whatever he wants to build regardless of the consequences. But there are unforseen obstacles and consequences in every endeavour.

“Hello, Jane, Goodbye” is a horror story written with the intention of getting into the Canadian anthology series Northern Frights, edited by Don Hutchison. Of course the story made it—it was too good not to. The protagonist here is a doctor who ostensibly operates on patients’ brains—young people’s brains—to relieve symptoms of epilepsy. But the doctor has a horrific secret; she’s not the benefactor she appears to be, even though she is a successful surgeon.

“At the Biological Cafe” almost defies description. Ostensibly, it’s about a meal—and what a meal! Not exactly a foodie’s delight, this one’s sort of a tone poem about eating out at a cafe. A very odd cafe.

“It’s the Elemental Spirits” is a story about a boy band. And horses. And a talent agent. And possibly European elementals. You decide; I’m just gonna read it again and enjoy the images Sally evokes.

“As Far As Is Feasible” is not quite an invasion story—it’s more about corporations. And their effects on actual people. Y’see, in my opinion—and obviously in Sally’s—corporations don’t give an actual damn about people, just about profit. But sometimes people get caught up in corporate machinations despite themselves. (And for some reason, I kept thinking about Rincewind’s sapient pearwood luggage.) It’s somewhat amusing.

“Totem” is a very regional story that could only take place in this corner of the world; it involves First Nations people, cedarwood carvings (“totem poles”), and an Old Man and his family. There are strange stories told by the original inhabitants of the place where I live (most of it is unceded territory of various bands—what Americans call “tribes”); and there are strange stories told by modern inhabitants. The poles are carved for various reasons including household guardians, history, and so on. Sally melds all these ingredients into what I consider a humourous story.

“There Is a Violence” is a human/alien interaction story, but it’s also (like several of these stories) about art, about power, and about history. The Raqaa appear to be an old humanoid species, rather distant and somewhat phlegmatic. But on Raqaaq, there are old artifacts that hint they were very different in the past; these old sculptures and artifacts would make a giant splash as an art exhibit, and Kristian Sundqvist wants to make a big splash. But his sister Susan isn’t quite as sanguine about these old things. Maybe this exhibit is a bad idea….

“The Paisley Snow” is another almost indescribable story. What appears to be maybe a post-apocalyptic tale turns out to be something entirely different. But again, it’s not about what has happened, it’s about the effects on people of whatever it was. And as before, Sally’s details make it real.

“The Faraway Club” is very clever. Nobody knows, despite all claims to the contrary (in my opinion, that is) what happens after we die. But Holly does. She’s dead, and instead of Heaven or Hell, she finds herself hanging around the old swing set in the backyard of her parents’ house. She can’t remember what happened to her, but she’s pretty sure she was murdered. So she sets out to find out who did this, and why. There are very specific rules for ghosts (fot that’s what Holly is now), like you can’t just drift through walls, and most people can’t see you, and you can’t taste anything, don’t need to breathe, etc. Will Holly find out who killed her and her boyfriend (who died before she did)? You’ll have to read it to find out.

All these stories were printed in various publications; they’re gathered here for the first time. I really enjoyed this book, which will be available in trade paperback (264 pages, ISBN 978-1-998795-00-0, $23.99 CAD) and ebook (ISBN 978-1-998795-01-7, $4.99) formats from the usual outlets.

I have a couple other ARCs from Brain Lag and will be reviewing other books in the near future.

If you enjoyed this review, you can comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). You can even comment if you hated it! All comments are welcome, but be polite, please.) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

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