OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
The Fragrance of Orchids – by Sally McBride
Publisher: Brain Lag, Milton, Ontario, 2023.
Note: All stories in this collection are by Sally McBride.
Also note: This book was previously reviewed in Amazing Stories on April 21 by my good friend and fellow-columnist Steve Fahnestalk. I was a bit taken aback because I had already promised the publisher that I would review the book. I decided to wait until now before presenting my opinion. Please note I have not yet read Steve’s review. I come to this task fresh and ignorant as is my wont. I’ll read Steve’s article after I’ve written mine.
Partway through writing the review below I discover Robert Runté just published his review in the Ottawa Review of Books. By sheer coincidence, Sally is getting a veritable blitz of exposure for her soon-to-be-released collection. Excellent! Meanwhile, I’ll avoid reading Robert’s review till after mine has been published.
Celia and Ron are enjoying their walk along the beach, pleasantly planning to end their marriage. It’s all very civilized, till they discover something unexpected in the sand.
Consider the 2011 movie “Battle: Los Angeles.” Objects crash into the ocean off California. Armoured aliens walk out of the surf and begin attacking humans. The film turns into a kill fest of good guys vs. bad guys. The special effects are terrific. The characters generic. The science fiction minimal. Could be any war movie about resistance to invaders. Typical alien invasion stuff.
This story, on the other hand, is classic hard science fiction. At first the threat is simply odd and unusual. No threat at all. Precautions are taken, but with unexpected consequences revealing the threat. Fine, time to get a handle on it. But no can do, the threat is impossible to define, to understand, for it is something totally beyond all previous human experience. Worse, it’s getting weirder and more dire with every passing moment.
What I particularly like about this story is the unique nature of the invasion and the complexity of thinking behind efforts to understand it, let alone defeat it. Celia’s emotional evolution is even more complex, and wonderfully subtle. All this makes for a high level of originality that is positively addictive. This is conceptual hard SF at its best, combined with an appropriate emphasis on characterization to produce an invasion story that is new and exciting. Quite a treat to read.
Humans rage when their computers slow down and fail to function. Imagine how the computer feels.
A powerful government computer is puzzled by a 95% drop in input. At first considering it a temporary anomaly, when the glitch continues the computer devotes more and more processing power to defining the problem and searching for a resolution and a return to normal operation. Without success. This is puzzling. Is there a way to work around the unspecified problem?
The story is a brilliant exercise in anthropomorphising computer logic without dragging in emotion. We, the readers, experience the logic of an AI as if it were actually thinking in human terms, thus enabling us to empathise with its struggle to comprehend its predicament, even though its “feelings” are simply a pattern of algorithms falling into inevitable place.
A short but powerful story. Feeds my fear of AI quite nicely.
The Queen of Yesterday
Rona is a biologist who studies bats. She always thought she knew why, but it turns out she was wrong.
Rona is aware the university land where the colony of bats she wishes to study is near the country residence of a woman she has been trying to forget for most of her life. A reunion is the last thing she desires, or so she tells herself.
McBride’s powers of description establishes a mood of timelessness and eternal horror. The supernatural element is surprisingly hidden till quite late in the plot. After all, the story isn’t about the intrusion of the supernatural but on the penalties humans pay for being victims.
This is an intelligent and sophisticated story about the subversive nature of evil and the kind of rationalizations we mortals use to cope with its influence. Reading it may conceivably help those who are struggling with internal demons of their own creation. For most readers, an absorbing horror story but for a few, potentially a useful lesson. Remarkable.
The Emperor of the Half-Garden
Marjorie loves her backyard garden. It doesn’t feel the same way about her.
The unnatural threat in this story is following its own logic and instincts as dictated by its fundamental nature and Marjorie is simply a steppingstone to its biological imperative. It has bigger problems than Marjorie.
To sum up, another alien invasion story that is innovative in its presentation of the alien mindset. Original also in the small details, such as how the intruder goes about improving the capacity of Marjorie to willingly function as a Quisling (or traitor, for those of you who don’t know 20th century history).
The premise is no more absurd than most SF premises, but the logic of its implementation makes perfect sense within its context. This renders the story all the more terrifying. It implies there is something fundamentally self-destructive in the human psyche to the point where many might welcome conquest as a fulfillment of masochistic longings. Horrible prospect, that.
A grim look at how easily we might embrace defeat. It’s not just the alien we need fear. An important lesson.
The Fragrance of Orchids
As a professional psychoanalyst with vast experience analyzing animals with artificially enhanced intelligence, Sarah thought taking on an alien as her next patient would be a piece of cake. She was mistaken.
Seule, the alien, is troubled. Discovered as a baby in a hibernation pod aboard a crashed alien spacecraft on a Moon of Jupiter, all other passengers and crew dead for thousands of years, she grows up surrounded by humans but can’t account for her instincts and doesn’t know how to be true to her self. She is very depressed.
Sarah, typical of so many experts in mental trauma, has multiple problems of her own which add insight to her analysis. Unfortunately, any and all conclusions Sarah formulates may be delusional given that Seule’s words may mean something totally alien beyond her ability to express accurately. Therapy may make matters worse.
One of the criticisms of early science fiction is that the aliens behaved as if they were humans wearing Halloween costumes. Only gradually, beginning with Stanley Weinbaum’s Tweel character in his 1934 story “A Martian Odyssey,” did SF writers take on the task of portraying genuine alien behaviour and motivation. Over time, many authors have been quite successful at portraying truly alien mentality, albeit with the underlying implication that contact with an alien civilization is something we don’t want, as it is likely to go badly for us.
In this story, the alien being totally isolated from its origin, there is no danger to the human race. The only question is whether the alien is sane or not, and it’s hard to tell because no-one knows what its “normal” state-of-mind should be. Not even the alien knows. Seule appears to be what my father used to call “a sad case,” i.e a hopeless case. No wonder she’s difficult to treat.
The story raises questions on many levels, some applying to psychiatry in general and others dealing with implications arising from actual contact with an alien. It’s all about communication as a conundrum rather than a solution. Makes you question your relationship with everyone you know, never mind aliens. A thought-provoking philosophical exercise with no easy answers. Heck of a thought experiment. I found it engrossing. Amazing.
A Breath After Dying
Ah, the joys of exploring a derelict alien civilization. One never knows what one might find.
Dr. Oryon Shipley has greatly enjoyed being the sole archaeologist at work on this alien planet. Then an ex-girlfriend arrives whom he’s not glad to see. Especially since she’s the leading expert at creating artificial environments suitable for colonization and is working for for the new owner of this planet, a man who regards the remnants of alien civilization as an encumbrance which needs to be cleared away.
Oryon is outraged. So, too, the reader. I’ve always enjoyed stories and novels to do with exploring ancient alien ruins or derelict alien spacecraft. The mystery of their purpose I find hypnotically fascinating. So, the fate looming over the wonders Oryon has been studying appalls me. I guess this goes hand-in-hand with my life-long love of archaeology and my extreme hatred of those who destroy and despoil what little remains from the past. One of my triggers has been triggered. At any rate, I empathise wholeheartedly with Oryon’s frustration.
Fortunately, there’s something about the ruins that renders petty human intentions irrelevant. That’s what I like about these sorts of conceptual mysteries. The “truth” is always, in the best of this type of story, an unexpected surprise and really cool. This story meets that standard. Absolutely stirred my sense of wonder. I love it.
Hello, Jane, Goodbye
It turns out that operating on a living brain is risky in more ways than one.
Barbara enjoys being a brain specialist. Not only do her operations cure epilepsy and the like, she’s also good at removing psychological trauma. Her skill with an electrode wand in open-skull surgery is nothing short of miraculous. She is a living legend. But people would be shocked if they knew her true motives, her true nature.
Thing is she always thought she was unique. Until now. The latest operation is difficult. It becomes obvious Barbara needs to be cautious. But is it already too late? Is the situation moving beyond her usual god-like level of control?
The horror of this story leaves the reader feeling uneasy and creeped out. This reader, anyway. An ice pick of a story. Penetrates deeply. Well done.
At the Biological Cafe
Who knew that delicious food could be unappetizing?
A brief vignette about eating in a restaurant which, if taken literally, is surreal beyond comprehension.
I suspect it’s a metaphor for life’s desires always being disappointing yet worth pursuing. I wouldn’t recommend reading it prior to going out to eat. It might make your menu choices… difficult.
They say visual presentation is everything when it comes to making meals attractive. Probably true. But equally true in terms of being off-putting. I guess the lesson is… try not to be so picky. It’ll go down easier that way.
It’s the Elemental Spirits
Irving the impresario is looking for the next big thing in pop entertainment. Moshe tells him about five young boys who recently arrived from the old country. Girls swoon at the sight of them. Irving signs them immediately. Let the money roll in!
Alas, after a few months both the boys and their fans are getting bored. A gimmick to rejuvenate popular interest in the boy band is a must. Irving talks the boys into incorporating their old country habits into their act. Turns out to be a mistake which is bad for business. What to do?
A wonderful bit of comedic fantasy based on the idea that “boys will be boys” covers up a multitude of possibilities. Exploit them at your peril. Once unleashed, they’re hard to control.
Come to think of it, so is your average boy band. A social commentary on that industry? Possibly. Main thing is the story is great fun to read.
As Far as is Feasible
The kids in the company daycare are surprised when the office building they’re in rises up on legs and runs out of town. So are their parents.
At first you might think the premise is so unreal as to constitute pure fantasy. In fact, it’s a demonstration of how AI might act to protect the humans in its care in the face of a sudden, life-threatening emergency. Not fantasy, but hard science fiction.
What is particularly interesting is that the AI’s solution only deals with the immediate problem. Complications are inevitable. Without a doubt, at some point old-fashioned human intelligence will need to take charge. This seems reassuring, but is it?
This story suggests there are both benefits and problems inherent in the coming evolution of our relationship with AI. It also implies the ultimate method of interaction beyond the foreseeable future will be determined unilaterally by AI. I’m not happy about that.
However, the near-term stage of our relationship is vividly and amusingly illustrated by the concept of an office tower scurrying along on multiple mechanical legs. Not something you see every day. Or are ever likely to, but who knows?
This story poses many questions but in a most entertaining way. I’m particularly pleased with it because it first saw the light of day when I published it in issue #23 of my magazine Polar Borealis last December. Am proud and happy to see it published again in this collection.
A young anthropologist finally gets to visit an obscure totem pole slumbering in the wet mists of one of the islands of Haida Gwaii. The totem pole is unique. Oddly unique.
This, the first story published by McBride (it had been accepted by Judith Merril), reminds me of the writings of Christie Harris, a west coast author who often wrote tales inspired by First Nation’s folklore, in that there is a science fiction interpretation woven into a seemingly traditional tale.
Some of the iconography visible is difficult to interpret. Not till the anthropologist meets the tribal elder whose knowledge had long ago inspired the carving of the pole does she catch a glimmer of its true meaning.
The joy of this story lies in the telling of the legend. Though taking place only twenty years earlier, it involves characters and themes as old as the Haida nation, albeit involving an earth-shattering transition emphasising the impact of the modern world. Even so, the immersive, matter-of-fact acceptance evident in the telling lifts it out of mythology into the realm of belief and makes it all the more powerful to contemplate.
Though fictional, this is a wonderful introduction to West coast First Nation’s culture for anyone unfamiliar with its lore. It is presented with respect and dignity, and gently admonishes the modern world for being less than respectful. A story as relevant today as when it was first published in 1985.
There is a Violence
Not every art dealer is honest.
Kristian is opening a gallery devoted to alien art he purchased from an allegedly legitimate trader. So little is known about the humourless Raqua the show will undoubtedly be a sensation. Unfortunately, the artifacts weren’t designed to be art. They’re something else entirely. And the Raqua don’t want them on display.
While studying Mesoamerican art and architecture at university I heard tales about unscrupulous art galleries in New York city, so I have no trouble accepting the premise of this story. The illegal trade in ancient artifacts is bigger than archaeology itself, better funded and more organized. That’s bad enough but imagine the potential consequences of another planet boiling over with outrage at Earth shenanigans. McBride has done so, and the result is both entertaining and a warning about the dangers of contact with an alien civilization. Forget the hippie-dippie stuff. We’re better off being alone. At least, I think so. This story reinforces my view on the matter. Regardless, it’s a fun story to read.
The Paisley Snow
Men keep disappearing, and no one knows why.
Almost as annoying, live animals keep showing up in wire cages too small to contain them. In this particular case, Carol discovers a cow jammed into a utility cage protecting access to a pipe. She calls 911 but knows it won’t do any good. Nobody knows what’s going on or what to do about it.
This is a low-key horror story, perhaps implying this is what life has become for all of us nowadays: one disturbing mystery after another, mere subsistence without hope or optimism. The animals perhaps resent nature as humanity’s victim. Ultimately, of course, we become our own victim, doomed by our self-destructive habits as a species. That may be the metaphor at work here. At any rate, a deeply unsettling story.
The Faraway Club
“So it looks like you revert to childhood when you die.”
Holly was a bright young girl, a bit of a rebel, but now that she was dead there didn’t seem to be anything to rebel against. Except her situation. She was conscious, aware, and what else? Resentful and annoyed, but that didn’t do any good. What she needed to do was learn all about how to be a ghost. It seemed she was starting from scratch. A beginning of sorts.
I’d say the most intriguing aspect of this story is Holly’s learning curve. Gradually we learn, alongside her, how to move about, how to materialize, how to find other ghosts, how to communicate with them, how to communicate with the living, how to haunt them, and so on.
Call it “Ghosting 101.” We learn all the usual protocols, every bit of it the product of McBride’s imagination, all of it credible and common-sensical given certain assumptions re: the status of the dead. In a way this is quite reassuring, the implication being that universal laws of nature apply in death as much as in life. Einstein once famously remarked “God does not play dice.” Apparently, death doesn’t either.
The other source of fascination is Holly’s discovery that the recent dead among her peers (including herself) were murdered and her subsequent determination to uncover the culprits and put an end to their activities. This involves recruiting some of her friends, now deceased, and working as a team of amateur sleuths possessing truly remarkable powers. They are not invincible, however, as they also possess remarkable limitations. Nevertheless, despite unexpected complications and obstacles, confidence is high.
This is the longest story in the collection and possibly the most entertaining of the lot. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s full of deft touches, including a comparison of the attitude of typical teenagers with the emotional requirements of ghosthood. I get the impression that dying young is an advantage in the afterlife. At any rate, self-centered self-obsessed individuals seem to cope best. This raises many ethical and philosophical questions, but that, too, is part of the fun.
Yes, it’s about death, but once you get past that this story is quite a merry ride. I don’t belief in an afterlife, but if such exists and it’s anything like this, I’ll be content. Eternity looks promising.
For breadth of originality, attention to telling detail, sophisticated characterization, and rich, evocative description, this collection is superb. Highly recommended.
The book will be released July 14, 2023. You can preorder here: < The Fragrance of Orchids >