OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #124, Vol. 33 No. 2.
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, Ethan Zou, Alyssa Kulchisky, Celine Low, Lareina Abbott, Cheryl Merkel, Jade Mah-Vierling, and Krystle McGraith.
Cover Art: Prism – by Scott B. Henderson
Editorial: Past, Present, and Future – by Susan MacGregor
Starts with the good old days with editors exchanging paper manuscripts and meeting in person to debate the merits of the submissions, goes on to the proper kind of equipment required to maintain a modern blog, and ends with exciting AI prospects for turning one’s written works into movies by oneself. One thing is for sure; times have changed.
Second Sight – by Rob Gordon
Tests prove you have natural ESP abilities. What are the implications?
Walter is a typical University student needing some extra money. All he has to do is figure out what’s in sealed envelopes. Surprisingly, he guesses right 30% of the time. The tests become more elaborate, the pay more attractive. Soon, he is consciously aware of his powers, to the point of confidently manipulating them. But he’s not the only one to draw conclusions.
This is an exercise in paranoia, with the caveat that even paranoids have enemies. Or to quote the old military saw, “Never volunteer.” Or to put it another way, next time you pass a homeless camp, wonder why they are trying to stay under the radar. What is it they are afraid of? Maybe you should be, too.
To sum up, an unsettling story. Not because the fictional threat is real (it isn’t, though makes for an entertaining premise), but because the kind of fear and paranoia described is all too common. It’s a commentary on what society has become today. Rather frightening to contemplate.
They Each Pursued Beauty – (Poem) by Colleen Anderson
What if aliens are fascinated by our body augmentation habits?
Best explanation of the body probes I’ve seen yet.
Oregon Shooters – by Douglas Smith
People don’t normally drop dead in Seafood restaurants.
An unlicensed private eye is upset two people died while eating his favourite snack. He decides to help the restaurant owner out, since the authorities seem in no hurry. Odd, seemingly unconnected details begin to pile up. Then things get weird, really weird. The villain turns out to be barely credible, yet utterly plausible given the SF context. I found this story quite entertaining.
In a way, yet another exercise in justified paranoia. Can this be the real reason H.P. Lovecraft was so terrified of sea food? I like to think so. Have the feeling he would wholeheartedly approve.
Warden Trees – by Brian D. Hinson
Can you trust an AI to remain sane when the humans aboard a starship are in stasis?
For unknown reasons, three crew members are awakened before the ship is more than halfway to its destination. There are some subtle and not so subtle indications that the AI is toying with them. But perhaps their paranoia is reading too much into random glitches? Much depends on what happens next.
The trio’s interaction with each other is the most interesting aspect of this story. Much of it is dictated by the cultural values of this future age. Yet the difficulties of coping with what is both inexplicable and unstoppable are universal in nature and easy for the reader to relate to, no matter how bizarrely framed. In short, we humans are both tougher and more vulnerable than we like to think.
The story leaves trust in AI up for debate but does make a strong case that the best we can hope for is to place our trust in each other, risky though that may be. Difficult thing, trust, especially in this day and age. It may be harder to come by in the future.
The Story – (Poem) by Pamela Yuen
Another accident on the Don Valley Parkway.
The police are withholding details, with darn good reason. Amusing, yet worrisome.
Hairstyles for the Apocalypse – by Brittany Amos
The end of the world will probably come at an inconvenient time.
Kyla isn’t in a hurry to get home, so finishing her treatment at the hair salon seems as good a place as any to hang out during the apocalypse. She can’t help but wonder how this will affect her ratings as an influencer and, indeed, her personal relationships. She has the vague idea the apocalypse will change everything. How best to exploit this?
A short but biting tale on how some people live too much in the most self-conscious of moments and don’t quite grasp the larger picture. On the other hand, probably it is important to remain calm during the end of the world. Could be self-obsession is key to that. Worth pondering.
The Necessity of a Shepherd – by Quinn J. Graham
Wolves are one thing. The threat at hand quite another.
“The Assyrians came down like wolves on the fold…” Well, trust me, the Assyrians were pussycats compared to supernatural wolves. Not that that has anything to do with the story, but it is what the story put me in mind of.
Thing is Assyrians often accepted what they thought due them. Give them your sheep and they’d let you walk away. Don’t think that works with the beasties in this story. Most shepherds deal with the mere possibility of attacks by predators. Watching the sun go down knowing that an attack is imminent this night and next night and every night has got to be wearing on one’s motivation and morale. Hiring an assistant shepherd is a good first step, but is it the solution? One can hope.
Another story dealing with coping with the seemingly unstoppable inevitable. Personally, I’d never apply for a job where I risk being torn to pieces by a supernatural being, but that’s just me. Others might be up for the challenge.
What makes this story particularly interesting, given the subject matter, is the overall philosophical approach which assigns roles far more complex than the usual good guys vs monsters approach. Perhaps the secret to coping rationally and avoiding betrayal by runaway emotion? Rationalization a form of mental armour? Hmm… could be.
Mindspeed to Yesterday’s Photons – (poem) by Swati Chavda
Seeing through time.
A vivid visual moment, with past and present combined. A form of time travel potentially open to us all, or so I infer. A joyous, hopeful poem.
Your Body, My Prison, My Forge – by Marie Brennan
Swallowing living food does not make for good digestion.
At first I took this as a surreal metaphor for cancer as a creative force, but then my classicist training kicked in and I snapped into the mythological situation and understood exactly what was going on. The story is an original take on a famous legend, one that illustrates even the gods can be punished for hubris and that the ultimate source of wisdom may well be pain and suffering. On the one hand, the myth can be seen as an explanation for the sort of reality every mortal is forced to come to grips with but, then again, maybe it reflects an innate desire to seek revenge on the gods who treat mortals as mere playthings. Something for the pious to laugh at.
Be that as it may, this particular treatment lends a remarkable dignity to the whole affair, transforming what strikes many moderns as a silly, rather icky mythic tale into a genuinely religious transformation that stirs one’s sense of wonder. In short, it reveals the high-minded religious sensibility underlying the myth and renders the faith behind it more accessible to modern minds. What seem like a pointless fairy tale today was once numinous to the ancients, profound and relevant to their everyday lives. I am very pleased with this story for revealing the ancient mindset. Truly educational. Delightfully so.
Me, Myself & I: The Adventures of Flick Gibson, Intergalactic Videographer – by Peter G. Reynolds.
Once you meet yourself you begin to understand why everyone dislikes you.
The whole point of time travel is to screw things up. We all know that. Certainly Flick Gibson does. The only thing that can draw him into working with a younger and an older version of himself is lucrative profit. In fact he prides himself on never losing sight of that goal no matter how chaotic and stupid reality becomes. Helps make reality, any version of it, bearable.
Still, preparing a recruiting video for the galaxy-wide cult led by the Grand Auditor does tweak his conscience a bit, but fortunately not enough to prevent him (or them) from earning their pay. However, a face-saving gesture seems appropriate and workable, so why not go for it?
Trouble is giving into impulses is generally a bad habit for time travellers to adopt. Flick knows this but can’t resist. I suspect this is why we haven’t seen a lot of time travellers lately.
Peter G. Reynolds won the 2023 Best Short Story Aurora Award for a previous Flick Gibson story “Broken Vow” which appeared in On Spec Magazine #120. Just goes to show people appreciate being entertained. “Me, Myself & I” is also a lot of fun.
Orion Conquers the Sky – (Poem) by Maria Zoccola
Orion goes to war against the zodiac.
Mortals can be such idiots, doing stupid things like falling in love with goddesses. Apollo made certain his sister Artemis would never enjoy Orion’s embrace, but in sorrow she placed Orion among the stars, forever out of reach but immortal after a fashion.
In this poem Orion makes war on his stellar neighbours, out of petty revenge perhaps, or vainglorious envy. At any rate, he never learns. Always a price for hubris. Always. His immortal fate mirrors his mortal fate. Idiot.
Based on my classicist readings and education, I’d say this poem would have been a huge hit in ancient times, say around the time of Horace, when originality was highly prized and blasphemy nothing to worry about. Powerful stuff.
The Hidden Heart of Brass Attending – by Christopher Scott
Souls of the recent dead are a profitable resource.
To my mind an incredibly original story. Not your usual steampunk though evocative of such. Howard McCutchan is an expert at capturing the souls of the recently violently departed in the bodies of brass automatons which he then sells as a sort of indentured servant to the supremely rich. Being dead, no human rights are involved, no laws broken. His is an extremely lucrative business.
And yet, and yet, he is responsible for the successful bonding of the souls to their owners. Should one go berserk, Howard is liable to face the death penalty, so great is the public’s fear of these creatures. So, when he decides, for emotional personal reasons, to create a brass attender without inbuilt restrictions, more than the reputation of the industry is at stake.
It strikes me that the story could be read as a metaphor for the advent of self-aware AI beings. Beyond that, the concept of fully self-aware dead people forced to do the bidding of the living raises all sorts of ethical and moral questions, most of which Howard ignores because his motives are purely selfish. Can’t go wrong when you base a character on their flaws rather than their virtues. Still, much food for thought.
The story impacted me like a breath of fresh air. Made me sit up and take notice, so to speak. Quirky originality is something I always prize. I enjoyed reading this.
To Kill a Gorgon – by Colleen Anderson
The head of Medusa makes a lousy oracle.
A grim, post-apocalyptic vision. Keeping the head of Granny, the former wise and inspiring leader of the small group of survivors, alive in order to seek advice when needed is becoming more and more problematic and increasingly something of an empty ritual which brings no comfort.
Often, this sub-genre presents old-time knowledge as the key to rebuilding civilization. But what if the old knowledge is now irrelevant or a hindrance? Too much reliance on past experience renders one immune to the needs of the moment. It can even be fatal.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ll quote an April 1943 entry from the wartime diaries of British M.P. Harold Nicolson (which I am currently reading) regarding the struggle for power over the Free French between Charles de Gaulle and General Giraud: “Giraud is thinking in terms of 1920. De Gaulle realises France is in a revolutionary mood and that no authority will have any prestige which is based on the old gang.” Indeed. This is why De Gaulle became President of France and Girard became an embittered retiree. Sometimes it is important to let the past go and respond instead to current realities.
To sum up, this story presents an object lesson in mythic proportions. Grim as it is, it offers hope. Never too late to adapt. Failure to do so amounts to giving up. Best to struggle on armed with ideas that might actually succeed.
“Humanity’s Relationship with the World” Interview with Scott B. Henderson – by Cat Mcdonald
Interesting view of humanity as a kind of collage which needs to be assembled before one can make sense of it.
Comic & Bot: “Great Martian Potato Festival” & “Professor Biohazard” – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk
Joyful fun as always, especially if you like/fear potatoes.
Brittany Amos: Texting the Apocalypse – Author Interview by Roberta Laurie
Brittany normally writes screenplays, but lately she’s become fascinated with the possibilities an apocalypse (of whatever type) offers fiction writers. She intends to write more stories dealing with the subject.
Another splendid issue featuring a wide variety of interesting stories. On Spec always a pleasure to read.
Check it out at: < On Spec #124 >