OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Publisher: Zombies Need Brains LLC, July 2023.
Editors: Stephen Kotowych & Tony Pi
Cover Art – by Justin Adams of Varia Studios
Note: American publisher, but both the editors and at least six of the authors are Canadian, so fair game for my general strategy of reviewing Canadian speculative fiction. I started late and may not have the time to review every story, but I’m aiming at all the Canadians and as many as the others as possible. Apologies to those I miss.
Turtle Cliffs – by Aliette de Bodard
The fate of the Empire depends on a game tile.
Magic interwoven with yet another violent change of dynasty in Imperial China. Does magic improve matters? Offer solutions? Or is it simply another ploy, a mere tactic, in your standard power struggle between those determined to preserve the status quo no matter what the price and those who demand change, any change, no matter what the cost. One thing is for sure. The use of magic is entirely personal. Much depends on the nature of the person wielding it. More than they know.
An unusual story. Its use of magic somehow highlights the sorrow and futility of the “game” of rebellion vs oppression. Effective.
Machines – by Jennifer R. Povey
The native aliens demand proof. Unfortunately, the human scientists studying them have no idea what they are supposed to prove.
The problem with aliens in science fiction that it is difficult to portray alien thought processes that are truly alien. It requires a high degree of originality on the part of the author. Too often writers ransack obscure earth cultures or odd animal behaviour to come up with something that is different enough to “pass” as alien but mostly it all comes across as odd variations of typical human thoughts and motivations. Good enough, most of the time, but a tad frustrating.
In this story the translation gizmos are dictionary perfect. Trouble is depending on the literal meaning of words is a lousy way of understanding the subtleties of idiom. So, the humans understand the aliens’ words, but find it impossible to understand what the aliens are getting at. This could lead to an extinction event for the natives, or possibly for the humans.
Fortunately the humans are determined to experiment with whatever it takes to grasp the underlying concepts inherent in the alien communication accurately. The result is quite delightful, like the best of old-time pulp fiction as per Stanley G. Weinbaum and his ilk. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Most entertaining.
Not His Best Feint – by Ed Greenwood
Even dragons play games.
Gaming is very important. It maintains the balance of power between dragons and, just incidentally, provides employment for humans. The status quo is pleasing to everyone. Well, maybe not everyone. Someone may be taking the game too seriously, for a player is discovered beheaded, with the head nowhere to be found.
Not often does one read a murder mystery in which the investigating “detective” is a dragon. In fact, I don’t think I ever have. This is a first for me. It’s quite a lot of fun, not least for its exploration of the interaction between dragons (egomaniacs all), and between dragons and their human underlings. Machiavelli would nod with approval reading this. Some shenanigans are universal.
Persistence of Memory – by Cory Swanson
Your memory has been erased. But what if you figure out your memory has been erased? What then?
This is a variant on numerous TV shows I’ve always ignored. I’m sure you’ve heard of them, maybe even watched some. A bunch of strangers are plopped down on an island and told to depend on their personal resources to survive. Or contestants without money or credit race each other across the globe searching for clues. I’ve only seen commercials. I don’t have a clear idea what they are actually about.
In this version the contestants begin each episode with an artificially induced state of amnesia. Definitely a handicap, and probably not all that outrageous in terms of the gimmicks such shows are likely to attempt. Oh, probably illegal and impossible now, but who knows what the future will bring?
This story a satire of sorts, but also a metaphor for what life has become. All of us, in our own way, trying to beat the system. Can it be done? Or is it a delusion built into the system? Can we ever know? Do we want to know? So many questions raised. Intriguing story.
The Grim Reaper’s Game – by David Hankins
The Grim Reaper hates magic with a passion.
Because a sufficiently powerful spell can thwart the Grim Reaper in his rounds, at least temporarily. He hates that. It throws him off his schedule.
Fortunately, this particularly annoying mortal offers a challenge, something unusual, something interesting. What the heck. It breaks the monotony. The Grim Reaper accepts the game offered him. The reader is promptly plunged into the problem at hand which turns out to be an interesting exploration of the relationship of magic to religion and what does it all mean anyway? Not to mention sharing the mindset of the Grim Reaper and discovering the nature of his personality. One revelation after another. Good fun.
Solitaire for Three – by James Alan Gardner
Is solitaire just for the solitary?
Solitaire for three? Three players in a row that is. How a magic deck of cards changes the lives of people in three separate generations. In a way, this particular solitaire deck is life, and is addictive as life itself. The reader sees, in the results of playing the cards, reflections of what the characters both want and fear from the cards, from life itself. A metaphor for the chances we all take as soon as we wake up every morning. Something to be taken for granted, yet always hopeful. Something ongoing for as long as we live.
Despite occasional horrific elements, this is a contemplative, upbeat story. The ending is especially charming.
Dead Man’s Hand – by Mike Rimar
Being an undertaker specializing in wizards can be problematic.
The dead can be annoying. Especially when they show up at the door unannounced. Even more so when you know they want something but are unable to communicate. Worst of all when they expect you to drop everything and devote your full attention to their needs. Still, you can’t just walk away from the dead. They might follow you.
This is a fun romp through a fictional world where magic is just another excuse to cheat and bamboozle your opponents. Emotionally speaking, call it a quest through stormy seas in search of a safe anchorage, preferably one that will prove rewarding. Trouble is, at the same time you have to run a gauntlet of parental disapproval and disappointment. No matter. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you can always count on another corpse showing up. For an undertaker, that’s a good thing.
Random Access Memory – by Eric Choi
An Afghan refugee security guard at a Canadian Casino has troubles enough without dealing with weird gamblers and even weirder slot machines.
This is a very Canadian story. I remember the Canadian embassy officials during the fall of Saigon loaded their Mercedes limos into Armed Forces Hercules transports to bring home but left their Vietnamese employees behind to the tender mercies of North Vietnamese “Re-education” camps. Always been ashamed of that.
So, a story about a translator working for the Canadian army in Afghanistan (we were there for years, mostly around Kandahar – suffered 158 killed in action and over 2,000 wounded) managing to flee to Canada only to spend endless hours coping with the notoriously backlogged Federal immigration bureaucracy in a futile effort to get his sister into Canada resonates with me. Canada is full of refugees and people descended from refugees – Ukrainians and Hungarians, for example – not all of whom have found the nation of muskeg and tundra the promised land. Failed expectations are part of the reality of Canadian life. Reality can be harsh. It can bite.
So a hard science story in which quantum mechanics can be used to manipulate reality in a truly random matter, for better or worse, opening both visions of hell and memories of heaven, almost makes me believe all those government grants to obscure research projects may be worth the expense. Not a pleasant story, but a powerful one, offering hope future technology may be, if not our salvation, at least something to ease our inevitable pain.
Mythbot – by Mark Silcox
Thing about hitchhikers… some are perverts, some are killers, but every now and then, they know how to entertain.
Something like this story is a form of public entertainment I have participated in. it is an extrapolation of something which already exists. That said, the story is really a commentary, a “looking back” as it were, on many of the fears and types of obsessive paranoia so prevalent in our divisive age. It makes our generation look silly and affected. Frankly, we are.
Oh, the story doesn’t portray solutions or changed circumstances. It’s about our contemporary world and not the future. Yet it does offer the comfort of implying our present immaturity will be replaced by common sense and civilized demeanour. An outrageous longshot, I know, but pleasant to contemplate. Is it utopian to hope we will someday be normal? I rather like the message of this story.
Beat the Haunted House – by Melissa Yi
Demons are human too… sort of.
Katrina, who possesses genuine paranormal abilities, is hired to exorcise ghosts and/or demons from a four-million-dollar mansion. Trouble is she has to split the $50,000 award with another psychic plus the jerk son of the owner. Still, being in debt and rather poor, the challenge is an opportunity of sorts.
Trouble is one of the demons sees Katrina as a good opportunity… for a good meal. This motivates her to offer him something better, a battle of wits. The ghost vs. the psychic is a bit of a distraction, not to mention Colin the jerk, but Katrina has the ability to concentrate. She is, after all, a professional demon hunter. But the demon has been around a long time and is both professional and highly experienced. They are evenly matched. What to do?
Half the joy of this story are the tactics employed by the combatants as they test each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The other half of the fun is the resolution which, while slightly evil, is logically satisfying. Enjoyable and entertaining. A fresh breath of brimstone, so to speak. Great fun.
All the stories I reviewed from this anthology involve a game of some sort or another. Fair to call it a series of monographs on the topic of life as a game with each story exhibiting wry and subtle writing embedded with numerous original concepts. A feast for the imagination I’d say. Highly recommended.
E-book available at: < Game On! >