OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
THE SCIENCE FICTION TAROT: Luminous Symbols of all the Tomorrows to Come.
Publisher: Brandon Butler in association with TDotSpec Inc, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2023.
Lead Editor: Brandon Butler.
Managing Editors: Andy Dibble & David Shultz.
Submissions Editors: David F. Shultz, Don Miasek, Evin Hale, Martin Munks, Nujhat Tibassum, Shivani Kamdar, Steven Kim, Wayne Cusak, Y.M. Pang.
Copy Editors: Andy Dibble, Julia Wang, Justin Dill & Lloyd Penney.
Cover Art – by Louis Rivera. Interior Illustrations – by Marco Martin.
Introduction – by Brandon Butler
During a zoom call someone mentioned the Tarot, and Brandon wrote a note to self “A Tarot Deck for a new generation.” Out of that sprang this book. The editorial team received 500 story submissions from all over the world. Impressive.
The theme is “the Major Arcana,” a 22-card deck, each card symbolizing an aspect of life, in this case science fiction aspects of life taken for granted as foundations of the genre. Marco Martin created a separate card for each aspect appropriate to the 22 stories. Remarkable, and a visual feast.
TAROT CARD: Alternate History – Depicts a skull-headed worker striding along with a rocket over his shoulder against a backdrop of a nuclear explosion.
Rocket Man – by Louis Evans
The world never did figure out sophisticated electronic guidance systems. Intercontinental ballistic missiles require a pilot.
Each Rocket Man is assigned a particular missile. Life at all the missile bases is mostly boring, what with repetitive questionnaires and psychological tests. The authorities are constantly worried about less-than-perfect motivation. This turns the story into a wonderful parody of 1950’s style paranoia, very much like something Philip K. Dick wrote in his heyday.
The Rocket Men themselves worry about going insane, which makes sense, since the prospect of certain death should they go on a mission is a tad worrisome. Still, each copes in a uniquely obsessive, quite mad manner. Never mind motivation. How about mental competence?
The main character, whose mission will be to obliterate both himself and Moscow, believes himself to be the only sane Rocket Man, the only calm and rational one in the bunch. Trouble is, he has disturbing dreams, each a vision of an alternate version of his mission, to the point where he is never quite sure which and what is his genuine reality. This does not bode well for the success of his mission but makes for a kaleidoscopic but entertaining story. Ultimately points to what a difficult conundrum the existence of nuclear weapons actually presents to us. It implies not just the Rocket Men who are mad. We might all be.
TAROT CARD: The Clone – Six identical men in a circle; one lying down, his head shattered.
Master Brahms – by Storm Humbert
A clone is found shot dead in a locked room. Most puzzling.
A variation on a standard mystery. The house AI is a witness, but evidentially has been tampered with by the killer not to reveal anything. So, it is up to the resident clones to figure out what took place, as if each of the residents is a detective. This makes sense, as all of the clones are equal in their sagacity. Too equal. The guilty party anticipates every logical conclusion and exposes the flaws inherent in the speculation. In fact they all do this, simultaneously. The process leads nowhere.
It doesn’t help that all the clones are equally smug and complacent, but then each believes they are the original, and the others the clones. Consequently, the dialogue is very much like that of an insanely self-conscious individual arguing with himself.
Why don’t they call the police? In a variation of an ancient Roman law regarding slaves, if a clone commits a crime all the clones in the household will be destroyed. Since each Mr. Bhrams secretly fears they are not the original, none are willing to put themselves at risk.
An amusing “Who done it?” in which logic consistently defeats logic and renders a resolution seemingly impossible. Loads of fun.
TAROT CARD: The Uplifted Species – Three Apes off for a picnic in their soup-ed up automobile.
Rising Cove – by Mark S. Bailen
Humanity ruined the world. The apes and the cetaceans have taken over.
Chimpanzee Boz is happy leading the constriction crew building the mighty complex of metal orbs designed to house both apes and dolphins. It is the greatest achievement of their combined civilization, larger and more beautiful than anything the humans ever built.
Imagine his surprise when his boss, an elderly but wise dolphin, informs him an even greater achievement is being planned, but the requisite level of technology is lacking. Boz is instructed to travel, with his brother Middy, and a female chimp who has oddly been granted equal rights, to the last known refuge of the human race and seek their help.
Boz is reluctant to obey. After all, don’t the cetaceans still obsess over the legendary cruelty of evil humans? So, too, his brother Middy, whose hobby is studying the killing machines and torture methods devised by those nastily inventive humans? And of what use is a female? Especially when she’s not even in heat? How could the mission result in anything other than disaster?
The joy of this story is the confused moral and ethical constraints on the mission delegates because of their cultural and mythological imperatives. In their own way they are just as screwed up as the humans are supposed to be. I like this because it implies sentient intelligence is capable of extraordinary shenanigans no matter what the species may be. Call it inter-species politics.
An enjoyably imaginative story. One can’t help but feel sorry for Boz. He does his best, but…
TAROT CARD: The Android – A naked mechanical man with lots of spare parts but, curiously, without a head.
Why We Can’t Have Nice Things – by Elton Skelter
Is tinkering with a sexbot really a good idea?
Being a nerd is one thing. Being a gay nerd is merely another thing. But being a gay nerd assigned to perfect a sexbot on a daily basis up close and personal without company oversight is potentially a risky business. On the one hand, this is close to hardcore porn. Call it Android Romance. On the other hand, there’s a strong satirical element in the description of various behavioural modes being switched on and off. Are people on the bar-prowl, be they gay or straight, male or female, really all that different from pre-programmed robots? Can sex with a sexbot escape the reptile brain within us all?
Yes, the story has a wry wit to it, but this dissipates as absurdist excess evolves into horror. The ending suggests it would be better if we confined sex to fantasy and left technology out of it. But when you’ve got bean counters and share holders clamouring for profits… well, anything goes. I’m beginning to think old fashioned ways are best. Keep it simple.
To put it another way, this story is too adult for me, too intelligent in its portrayal of the threat latent in human desire. I’d rather continue with my second childhood, thank you very much. A little love will go a long way. Too much is too much, especially when it turns into something else.
TAROT CARD: The Alien Invasion? – A rather puny-looking little alien is clinging to a man’s arm. Seems harmless enough, but the teeth are rather sharp…
The Schadenfreuders – by Karl Dandenell
Aliens arrive and it turns out they’re addicted to human suffering.
Oh, not in a sadistic sense, at least as humans understand sadism. The aliens can taste suffering, they enjoy its many flavours, find it intoxicating. Indeed, they can easily get drunk on it. True connoisseurs will pay big bucks to be introduced to people who are in distress and willing to share their tales of woe. A shyster lawyer is quick to take advantage of this. He signs the aliens to an exclusive contract and figures he’ll make a killing merely by introducing them to all his sad-sack human clients.
Trouble is the aliens are insatiable. They grow more and more demanding. The lawyer begins to look for a way out, but he was too clever writing all the contracts he got them to sign. He’s got them, but they’ve got him. How can a lawyer circumvent the law? Quite the conundrum.
An amusing tale. It reminds me of some of the quiet satire Clifford D. Simak used to be famous for. Such as his “They Walked Like Men” in which alien realtors buy up all our real estate. It has a similar vibe of aliens trying to out-exploit us at our own game. The solution is to take advantage of our own weaknesses to bamboozle the aliens whose understanding of our ways is not as sophisticated as they assume. This the lawyer attempts to figure out. Will he succeed?
TAROT CARD: Time Travel – Crashing onto pavement, a naked man who is minus a few bits of flesh here and there.
Plinthgate Papers – by Jason Mills
A climate degradation protest in Trafalgar Square is interrupted by the arrival of a man from the future who has come to explain that the future is far worse than they can imagine.
The annoying thing is he has been bred to be ignorant of his own era so as to not disrupt time too much, but the encrypted information he carries will reveal all, if only he can remember the password.
The story is in the form of excerpts from documents, both official and private, that detail the British Government’s quandary over what actions they should or should not take. It reads like satire, yet the potential consequences are terrifyingly real. There is no simple solution to the many, many problems the presence of the time traveler poses, and it’s possible there is no solution at all. But whatever happens, it’s going to happen, and nothing can stop it. So, naturally, the first priority of the government is to figure out how best to exploit the situation before anyone else does.
A wonderfully complex and witty tale reminding me of the kind of intelligent humour the British are famous for, as per example the “Yes, Minister” TV series. (As opposed to their lamest humour, often on display.) The story raises many a chuckle, but is worryingly disturbing, nonetheless. Powerful in its implications.
TAROT CARD: Virtual Reality – A giant parrot poking a watching couple with a stick.
The Bridge – by Jacob Perez
In the future, the only way Earth’s far-flung colonists will be able to visit the home planet will be to plunge into virtual reality.
Except that it’s not about places, but about people searching for their roots. Individuals are particularly keen to visit the “reality” of where their ancestors lived. Pun intended, they are also searching for their routes, the path forward to blissful happiness based on a firm sense of their personal place in the cosmos.
Trouble is no matter where we go, we struggle to find ourselves. Does visiting the French Alps really make life easier on a distant planet? Truth is our life baggage is attached to our ankles with chains. Phenomenally realistic virtual reality will be just another place to drag our baggage through. The presence of other humans will both help and hinder.
Theres a hint that the human race will always be human no matter how far we escape from the Earth, but will that always be true? Will love be the last resort of our inherent nature? This story raises many questions over what we will inevitably become. It is a prospect both wistful and sad. When you get right down to it, it’s hard to contemplate the future. A form of masochism. Perhaps best to remain in the present? The easy way out?
To sum up, a nihilistic love story. Is there any other kind?
TAROT CARD: The Apocalypse – Anguished men dancing about an empty chair in the light of a nuclear explosion.
Support Group: Apocalypse – by Marco Cultera
Support groups can be useful, maybe especially during the apocalypse.
Depending on their location, each member of the group faces a unique hopeless situation. As Patrick, the moderator of their weekly zoom meeting is wont to say, “We’re here to support one another, not to provide logistical support.” In other words, no useless advice, just morale-boosting compliments. In truth, though, mainly to utter soothing sounds while members express their worst fears and pent-up frustrations. One way to make their loneliness less severe. People care. Somehow that helps.
In the process the reader is treated to accounts of how complex the consequences of death, doom and destruction can be. Not everyone experiences the apocalypse the same way. Far from it. Often, odd things happen. Usually horrifying, but occasionally humorous, or ironic. Humans remain individuals, each experiencing catastrophe in their own way. Reassuring, I suppose. Score one for the philosophers.
The only thing everybody, absolutely everybody, has in common is death. This story provides a number of ways to deal with the prospect or, at least, to think about it. A primer of sorts. A serious one. Worth thinking about.
TAROT CARD: Utopia – A young man embraced by Waldo-like devices clutches a piece of paper even more firmly than the machine arms clutch him.
The Time Lottery – by Ben Coppin
With 12 billion people alive, there’s only room for four million to be awake on any given day. This is a problem.
Even worse, science has made people near immortal, but not everyone wants to spend forever in a state of suspended animation. True, a lottery allows winners to live in utopia for periods of time ranging from a week to a decade, but the day you wake up to be taken back to the freezer is always a bummer. Kind of lays a shadow over the whole “life is literally a vacation” scheme.
Awakened for a year, Alfie Linton is determined to beat the system. He wants to live a minimum of 65 million years awake and curious, wants to explore every inch of what’s left of the Earth. But how to do it? He has a year to figure it out.
The A.I. running the self-repairing, self-maintaining city designed to pleasure its human inhabitants is utterly devoted to its task; the algorithms at the core of its programming won’t allow it to do otherwise. Somehow, Alfie needs to take advantage of the city’s dependence on its basic programming. Watching him explore the possibilities and decide which path to follow renders the story a joy to read. Can’t help but wish him success. The ins and outs of his battle of wits with the city makes for a fascinating story.
TAROT CARD: The Uploaded Mind – A woman in a mind-access (?) helmet is connected to a vision of a burning man lifting weights.
New Start – by M. Ian Bell
Living in the bodies of paying clients is a good gig, but only temporary when your own body is dying of radiation poisoning.
The technology allowing individuals to ‘borrow” the living bodies of other people is rigidly regulated. For example, the authorities have the means to reveal the rider’s presence and identity, so impersonating the person you occupy is not only illegal but impossible.
So why do it? In this case, the protagonist is a woman who used to be a fire fighter. Now that her body is prematurely broken and frail, slipping into the bodies of clients in order to work out and improve their health is something of a relief. Especially when the client is wealthy enough to have their mind placed in stasis and she doesn’t have to share their brain.
But as death approaches the ex-firewoman begins to contemplate what sort of options her current job can offer if the right client shows up. Definitely a moral puzzle, but when it’s a matter of your own life and death, what do morals matter? An interesting take on the question. What would you decide?
TAROT CARD: The Time Loop – Ten of the same man resting, as if waiting, around a machine of unknown purpose.
Enough Time – by Fulvio Gatti
Time pills should be used with care.
The main character is potentially late for a job interview. Fortunately, a friend has slipped him a box of time pills. Swallowing one will give him an extra minute of time which no one else will experience, thus potentially enabling him to be on time.
He’s been warned not to take more than one pill, but he’s tempted to swallow several and arrive early. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Everything, as it turns out. This short story demonstrates the old adage “Don’t fool with Mother Nature” applies to time as well. It appears time travel, even mini-time travel, is a bad idea. Lesson learned. Short but fun story.
NOTE: I’ve only had time and space to review half the Major Arcana, i.e. 11 out of the 22 short stories. But given the quality of stories selected by the editors for the first half, I’m sure the remainder are equally worth reading.
I think it’s clear I enjoyed and was impressed by each and every story. I’ve barely hinted at the complexity and sophistication exhibited in this anthology. The subtlety of thought underpinning each story is amazing. This is genuine science fiction, thought-provoking and often wildly original, not to mention mature and intelligent. A real pleasure to read. Kudos to the contributors and acquisition editors. In my opinion “The Science Fiction Tarot” deserves an Aurora Award. It’s that good.
Check it out at: < The Science Fiction Tarot >