OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #123, Vol. 33 No. 1.
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, Jade Mah-Vierling, and Krysile McGraith.
Cover Art: The Dark Horse – by Judy Helfrich
Editorial: Welcome to the Future – by Diane Walton
Title is, as anyone with a sane situational awareness understands, is tongue in cheek. Reference is made to the coming avalanche of AI problems. On Spec’s policy is a firm “no.” Also, a glimpse behind the scenes. They’re working hard but have an amazing number of submissions still to go through. How many? Guess, and then subscribe to find out.
First Day on Night Shift – by Robert Runté
You’re responsible for lost luggage. What if the luggage doesn’t want to be lost?
Norton is responsible for the Lost Luggage department at the Airport. “Today” is his first day on the job. Confidence is high. He has been trained to handle customers no matter what problem they throw at him, but always with the knowledge his absolute priority is to get them to fill out the department’s official Lost Luggage forms correctly.
Thing is his night shift begins when the Airport closes, all doors securely locked, and he is the only person present in the terminal building. There’s nobody to talk to, let alone find them their missing luggage. This is a non-sensical situation, which is your first clue the story is a satire.
The first problem to confront him, something bizarre and outside the scope of his training, has to be resolved before the morning shift shows up; otherwise, he might be deemed both insane and incompetent and lose his job as a consequence.
It’s your basic manifestation of magic (or high-tech akin to magic) appearing in a mundane, non-magical world. How to deal with it? The logical thing is to apply logic. That’s Norton’s first mistake. Every rationalization he applies to the conundrum triggers revelations which further confuse both his options and his grasp of reality. The more he struggles to comprehend, the less he understands.
What makes his struggle a satire is that every rationalization Norton comes up with is always in the context of whether or not the resolution will conform to his job requirements because that is the sole criteria by which he will be judged. Consequently, he is mired in nightmarish insanity which reflects the Kafkaesque logic so often dictated by corporations and institutions in their policies and procedures. If you’ve ever worked for such an entity, you’ll readily empathise with Norton’s struggle to make sense of matters beyond his control because of idiotic constraints that have nothing to do with reality. As a satire about employee-as-victim of corporate mindset, I find this hilarious.
In addition, this is a highly immersive puzzle story. We, as readers, not only experience every step of the stumbling mental path Norton takes, but also compete with him to come up with our own solution before he does. Very much an enjoyable romp for those who relish the challenge. Up to the reader to decide if the “solution” Norton arrives at will actually work. Attitude is everything. Quite the brain teaser. Fun to read.
A Cry of Distress – by Nicole Luiken
Laura is a psychic working rescue in New York City. She is woken from her sleep by the thoughts of a child in extreme distress. Contact is hard to reestablish, and subject to interference in more ways than one.
This, too, is a satire. All organizations are subject to bureaucracy and politics, often to the detriment of their purpose. The challenge Laura faces is to work around the system to save the lives of two children in peril. If she doesn’t, and follows approved procedure instead, the children are doomed. The politics underlying the function of the rescue service are the source of her conundrum. If that seems farfetched, that mere politics would interfere in the need to save children, consider contemporary politics in action where charities, “Doctors without Borders” for example, are often prevented from doing good because the political entities involved are determined to win the conflict at any price. In such circumstances, the lives of children are an irrelevance, something to be ignored.
So, a hard-edged satire. But, if you accept the premise, psychics open to the thoughts of people in distress, the logic of the situation and Laura’s efforts to resolve it are entirely believable and quite fascinating. You might deem it fantasy rather than science fiction, but regardless, it is in the best tradition of SF; an impossible “gimmick” that might be hypothetically possible given advances in human knowledge, yet betrayed by ageless, typically human shenanigans. Makes for a good, entertaining story.
Nicole Luiken: Fourteen Years Later – Author Interview by Roberta Laurie
In 1990 when Nicole first sold a story to ON SPEC, she was nineteen-years-of-age and had already published three YA novels. Since then, she has sold many more. Obviously, her views on writing are well worth delving into. How wonderful that the interview goes into great depth and detail on her techniques and approach to the task. Much to learn here, or at least consider as good advice. I’ll just say I consider this an extremely useful guide to writing that every beginning writer owes it to themselves to read. Also contains some revealing and insightful bits about agents and marketing. Clearly, Nicole is intent on giving you the benefit of her experience. She has been published by traditional publishers and through self-publication, and has also released audio books. A contemporary author with a thorough knowledge of contemporary publishing. You want to read this.
The Downer – by Aeryn Rudel
Everyone is supposed to have a superpower. In Maggie’s case, it switched on during her twelfth birthday. That’s when she discovered her mere proximity kills people. Unfortunately, this power is beyond her control.
Growing up in a series of orphanages with unexpectedly high death rates does not make for a happy childhood. Still, as Maggie matured, she learned her Jonah-like powers have limits. As long as she doesn’t touch anyone and keeps her distance, people who are part of her daily life may not necessarily die, but it’s never a sure thing, because sometimes they do.
You’d think “The Downer” would be something of a downer of a story. But never say die (some kind of pun I suppose), Maggie is determined to take charge of her life. How she plans to do this, how she plans to exploit her hidden power without suffering pangs of guilt, makes for fascinating reading. If you had this power, how would you cope? How would you “solve” the problem? Though far-fetched (no more than the premise), Maggie’s intended solution makes sense, given certain decisions by others.
I like this story. I find it original and thought-provoking. Not sure I could handle this power as sanely as Maggie. Fun to ponder.
Music of the Spheres – (poem) by Angela Acosta
The Galaxy as an orchestral performance.
Interesting musings on the permanence of the ephemeral.
Penny Farthing Dreadful – by Steve Vernon
Jimmy likes to play in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. He’s been warned about the ghost of the hanged pirate. Gotta watch out for him. Trouble is, nobody said anything about what else was lurking in the park.
Successfully told from Jimmy’s point of view, his attempts to rationalize and outwit his peril an accurate presentation of reality viewed through the eyes of a young daydreamer. I’m pretty sure of this because I used to be like that when off playing on my own. For instance, the giant green water tower isolated on a tree-covered hill in Ottawa (now a dense neighbourhood) was a Martian war tripod, and my bicycle my fighter plane. I made countless high-speed passes at the towering machine trying to destroy it with the machine guns jutting from my wings. So, Jimmy’s reaction to an unexpected makes sense to me.
The story is neatly told, logical and coherent in itself, and is an intriguing variant on the concept of a curse. Not your standard ghost story, but something refreshingly different both in concept and presentation. Given the relentless nature of the foe, the story succeeds in being scary in spite of or perhaps because of the essential innocence in Jimmy’s interpretation of what is going on. Alas, innocence is no protection. This story makes that clear.
Immaculate Deception – by Kajetan Kwiatkowski
A spider, particularly good at being an ant-mimic, is assigned the task of infiltrating an ant nest to assassinate its Queen. This turns out to be unexpectedly difficult.
Actually, what is particularly difficult is writing a story about insects from the insect’s point of view. Either they come across is biological nanobots obeying limited programming (which is pretty much what they are but, alas, not very interesting), or they come across as humans role-playing ants, which tends to get boring quickly.
Kwiatkowski follows the middle path superbly well. The characters are human enough to understand and empathise with yet are motivated by circumstances and requirements representing the basic nature of their insect existence. The result is anthropomorphism at its smoothest and most entertaining.
Another good thing is the nature of ant society as dictated by the “What if?” premise that ants can think. Their “culture” remains much the same, motivated by instinct, yet is consciously seen, discussed and praised by the ants themselves as a creative “culture” and civilization. They are self-aware to the point of being proud of their achievements. A nice touch.
Chlor, the spider infiltrator of the nest, is equally intelligent and very judgemental. Though fiercely loyal to her fellow spiders and determined to carry out her mission despite being fatally compromised if her true nature is discovered, she can’t help but admire at least some attributes of the enemy. Thus, befriending a particular worker ant is both help and hindrance to her mission. But too late to give up now. She is surrounded by thousands. How long can her mimicry succeed?
Loads of fun, this story, with all sorts of amusing takes on this or that aspect of insect/arachnid behaviour. Enjoyed it.
P.S. Watch for the Ant Bard epic poetry. Particularly amusing.
Not with a Whimper – by Lindsey Duncan
What if the world grew silent because we collectively, all of us, lost the ability to hear.
How would the human race cope? Many obvious problems spring to mind. Duncan quickly lays out the not-so-obvious difficulties we would encounter. And just as quickly, reveals how we might cope in surprising ways.
A very short story indeed, but one full of hope and promise. I think the lesson is that we are not as inept and incompetent as we think we are. Many things are inherent in human nature, not all of them good, but adaptability and flexibility are part of human nature too. That’s how we survive, as a species, come what may. Definite poetic optimism in this story. All is not lost if we but try and give in to the best of ourselves.
Garbage Moon – (poem) by DJ Tyrer
Do we need a second Moon?
Brief thoughts on the practicability of the concept. A poetic thought-experiment.
Leviathan’s Legacy – by Nina Shepardson
In a world of magic, is there such a thing as too much magic?
This has to do with a gift from the sea that may be a curse, but if it can bestow power on he who dares use it, the advent of pirates necessitates finding out what it can do.
This is something of a vignette focused on the meaning of power and the temptation to use it. Of course, this applies to more than just magic, it puts every sort of power in human context, even modern technology if our comprehension is lacking or incomplete.
On the other hand, it’s a glimpse of a somewhat medieval world where the presence of practical, useful magic is taken for granted but abuse of magic greatly feared. It’s the sort of fable one might expect in such a world, a tale designed to teach caution and common sense in the face of an artifact sodden with magical power.
For the modern reader, it’s a good introduction into the kind of thinking inhabitants of a world dominated by magic would automatically be prone to. Escapist fantasy? Yes, but with a message that bears thinking about.
Retirement Life – (poem) by Lisa Timpf
Is there a retirement home for supernatural creatures?
If the answer is yes, how would beasties like dragons and ogres adapt? What sort of residents would they make.? What would they grumble about? A light-hearted, amusing poem that’s oddly emotionally-uplifting to read.
An Incomplete Transmission – by Louis Evans
Difficult to consult with foreign scientists about alien transmissions from Rigel when one is a) a citizen of the Third Reich at war, and b) a Jewish Professor of Physics.
The story is the form of correspondence between Professor Dietrich in Berlin and Professor Charles in Oxford. They remember the great excitement worldwide when the alien transmissions were discovered in the 1920s, and the even greater excitement when the first parts of the message were decoded: things like “natural numbers, the base nine encoding, primes and exponents…” and so forth.
Now they feel they are on the verge of understanding the actual message to Earth, but all manner of factors are hindering “the final push,” factors determined by the need to abandon pure science and concentrate on war work, for instance. And in Germany, increasingly oppressive political and ideological factors. Yet, surely, communication with aliens is what all science should be focused on, not petty squabbles. Why don’t the authorities understand?
Of course, the treatment of scientists under Nazi Germany is the classic example of science perverted and to some extent destroyed by a totalitarian regime. Stalin’s Russia was similar in its adherence to irrational ideology, thousands of scientists being transferred to laboratories in the Gulag where they were “allowed” to continue research under primitive and often fatal conditions. For instance, Sergei Korolev, the genius behind the Russian space program, lost all his teeth through malnutrition and developed permanent heart and digestive problems courtesy of his stint in the Gulag. Stalin’s paranoia harmed Russia’s technological advance. Government support is one thing, but interference by the whims of dictators often renders government oversite counter productive. This story sets out the process for readers to understand.
In both cases and in many other countries, even today, scientists are often constrained by idiotic political judgements and are forced into unreal hopeful rationalizations to motivate themselves to carry on. In this story, passion for getting close to solving the Rigel Riddle dilutes awareness of the dangers at hand. There is such a thing as being too focused for one’s own good.
To sum up, an intriguing tale of potential first contact as compromised by it happening at the “wrong time” in human history. For it to work we’ll really need to be on our most relaxed good behaviour. Hmm, could explain why they haven’t signalled “Hello” yet. This story is an intelligent look at our genius for imposing limitations on our genius as a species. Could be a glimpse of the inevitably short lifespan of an advanced civilization? Rational beings can only advance to the point where their irrationality renders them extinct? Hope we don’t prove this in my lifetime. Powerful story in all its revelations and implications.
Defying Winter – by Rachael Unger
How do you fool Winter with plastic flowers?
The story is a metaphor for struggle against depression and failure. Rena’s depression is a character in itself, a presence stronger and more real than mere emotion. No wonder, her job feeds her depression. It appears to involve adding gizmos to kitsch-level pictures to bring them to “life” with repetitive motion and gaudy colour. In essence, providing an artificial sense of Spring during a dreary (everlasting?) Winter.
Rena is nevertheless valued for her “special” power of electronic trickery. Her fake artifacts always seem more vividly “real” than those produced by her co-workers. This is why her best friend Shayla wants her to convert her Granny’s battery-powered “dancing flower” into a plugin. Then it could dance all day and keep Granny happy. Rena keeps putting the task off, which depresses her further.
Yep, the story is all about depression, which has a logic all its own and is often self-justifying. I know from own past experience—I used to suffer from pathological levels of depression—that when you are depressed everything seems depressing. It becomes impossible to think or feel your way out of the trap of depression. It’s a particularly hideous parasite. It sucks all the optimism out of you all the time. Rena is desperate to escape.
Does she succeed? Read the story to find out. As for myself, how did I escape? As with my frequent migraines, I simply grew out of them. I only get silent, painless migraines, and I never get depressed. Sad maybe, grief-stricken on certain unhappy occasions, but never depressed. I put it down to one of the few perks of aging.
Anyway, the story is pure fantasy, but very real in the way it treats and explores depression. A very interesting treatment of the subject. Well done.
“Science-Themed Art” Interview with Judy Helfrich – by Cat Mcdonald
Interesting. Helfrich describes herself as a “plotter” when it comes to painting and a “pantser” when it comes to writing. She makes both methods in their particular application seem the only way to go. And yet the “plotter” aspect applies only applies to her actual technique of painting in oil (which she describes in great detail). The imaginative, creative motivation behind it is pure “pantser,” to the point of surrealism so lacking in conscious decision-making she herself doesn’t fully understand what the images mean. This is rather exciting, I think.
Also, she has a good deal of interesting and appropriate comments on AI, the harm it does, and what would make it a legitimate tool if anybody bothered to program it ethically, plus a fascinating reveal of a genre she invented, namely “Altrealism.” Nothing pretentious about it. A good label for her style of art.
Overall, a terrific interview with much to say regarding the challenges facing artists today.
Comic & Bot: “Igor” & “Shorty” – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk
The “Igor” comic made me smile, and so did “Shorty” the Robot sculpture, because the latter’s name is appropriate to its physicality in more ways than one.
In Memoriam to John Mansfield
As a lifelong Canadian SF Fan and formerly a very active fanhistorian, I’d like to quote this notice in full out of respect for all of John’s accomplishments:
Long-time Winnipeg SF fan, gamer, and owner of Pendragon Games, John Mansfield, passed away April 19, 2023. John was known to many Canadian convention attendees as a founder of the Winnipeg SF convention, KeyCon, as well as the chair of Winnipeg’s 1994 WorldCon, known as ConAdian.
Bringing a World SF convention to Canada is no small feat, and John was also part of the successful Winnipeg bid to host PemmiCon, this year’s NASFIC. At the time of his passing, John was slated to be the Fan Guest of Honour at PemmiCon.
John was well-known in Winnipeg’s Gamer community, and his influence in Fandom in Canada will continue long after he is gone. Our condolences go out to his wife Linda Ross-Mansfield, and to his many friends for their loss.
An excellent issue full of innovative concepts, fascinating situations and characters, and just plain good reading. ON SPEC is always a good choice to pick up. Quality fiction. Always.
Check it out at: < On Spec #123 >