CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Mecha-Jesus and Other Stories” by Derwin Mak

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

Mecha-Jesus and Other Stories – by Derwin Mak

Published by Brain Lag, Milton, Ontario, Canada, 2024

Cover art by Catherine Fitzsimmons

Note: All stories are by Derwin Mak

Luck of the Irish

Premise:

A victim of the sinking of the Titanic is found frozen in an iceberg and brought back to life.

Review:

Huzzah! A victory for the infant science of cryogenics. Or is it? All is not what it seems.

Too short a story to comment further for fear of spoilers, but entertaining to read.

The Polar Bear Carries the Mail

Premise:

For many reasons, protesters oppose the Chinese spaceport being built in Churchill, Manitoba.

Review:

Churchill is famous for the annual migration of Polar Bears through the town. Or was. In this near-future tale the outgassing of methane from melting permafrost acidified the waters of Hudson Bay, killing both the marine life and consequently the polar bears as well. The population of Churchill, mostly Cree, Chipewyan, Métis, Dene, and Inuit, no longer have a basis for a tourist economy to support them.

However, methane gas can be converted into liquid methane, which happens to be the type of fuel utilized by the Long March CH4-1 rocket. So, a combined Chinese and Canadian consortium provides funding and expertise to build a methane fuel plant and a spaceport in Churchill. Locals anticipate a tourist boom, till environmental protesters show up. And then there’s the problem of improper feng shui.

Even worse, as often happens when protests conflict with local needs served by foreign influence, inflated idealism, nationalism and racism suffuses the situation and lead to violence. In times past I would have commented that that is all very un-Canadian, but times have changed, and the story is quite prescient even though it was originally published some thirteen years ago.

Further, the situation presented is quite complex, representing the varied interests and goals of numerous players, reflecting real life and lifting the story beyond a simplistic good guys vs bad guys scenario. A thoroughly modern story in that sense.

I have always argued that the traditional Canadian approach to solving a problem is to wait until it goes away, and that this proves Canadians are realists at heart because they know genuine social problems can never be solved. Human nature won’t allow it.

This makes for poor drama, though, so naturally something must be done, something unexpected and surprising to the reader, yet making perfect sense in a typically Canadian manner. The solution turns out to be rather charming and hopeful for better times. Is this aspect of the story prescient? Let us hope so.

Mecha-Jesus

Premise:

Jesus is alive and well… sort of. The locals call him “the Big-Nosed Goblin.”

Review:

Assume, if you will, that the second coming of Christ is a very serious matter, and that the manner of it may well be different from what you anticipate.

What if Jesus did not die on the cross but instead made his way to Japan, to a small town called Shingo, and there lived for several hundred years before dying and being buried in a modest grave. In 1936 both his grave and the memoir he left behind are discovered and incorporated into the Shinto religion. None of the locals become Christian, but nevertheless accept Jesus as a spiritual phenomenon worth exploiting for tourism. They establish a Christ festival.

In modern times (the near-future) Androids are everywhere, so naturally the villagers purchase an Android Christ to liven up the festival. Along comes an American Christian who hopes to convert the locals, a Japanese Catholic priest who wants to study the android Christ, and a van full of nationalist fanatics who want to purify Japan of all androids. Seems this year’s festival is going to be a tad more exciting than usual.

Thing is the android itself believes it is indeed the resurrected Christ, even though it knows it was manufactured in Japan. After all, God works in mysterious ways. What does a mere body, no matter how non-human, matter? What counts is the nature of the spirit, right?

Literally thousands of con-artists over the centuries have claimed to be Jesus manifest once again. Not all were fakes, in that some were simply deluded idiots. What they all had/have going for them is the “what if?” principle. If you believe the prophecy of a second coming is true, then it follows that sooner or later one of these imposters will turn out to be the real thing; in which case won’t you feel a fool if you turn out to be one of the ones who didn’t believe it. Your eternal fate could well be compromised.

This story has an extremely interesting resolution. Perhaps your response to it will be dictated by what you believe or don’t believe.

By the way, in an afterward Derwin Mak delivers an extra kick to your sense of wonder by explaining what inspired the story. Something I consider very cool.

The Snow Aliens

Premise: 

Two aliens are stranded in a farmer’s field. The Canadian army is willing to protect them from harm till the mother ship can rescue them, but easier said than done. The aliens are microscopic in size.

Review:

Put’s me in mind of the famous 1951 story Pictures Don’t Lie, by Katherine MacLean, in which an alien spaceship descending to a prearranged welcome meets a tragic fate due to its microscopic size relative to humans. However, in his afterword Mak credits a brief glimpse of a pristine, snow-covered field while driving past as his inspiration.

In The Snow Aliens tiny visitors cavorting in the atmosphere, tinier than snowflakes, find themselves ensnared in snowflakes and fallen to Earth. When you are that small, almost everything is a threat.

From the human perspective, how do you help something you can’t even see, let alone locate? Can’t even enter the field without risking their destruction underfoot. Ingenuity without precedent is called for.

Somehow, there’s something very Canadian about the premise, individual snowflakes being the primary villain and danger. I’m not sure the science involved is valid, but it appears logical. And I’m rather fond of the ending, which is quite charming. I quite like this story.

The Shepherd’s Blessing

Premise:

A young drab dreams of stealing enough money from her clients to live free of men’s lust.

Review:

Life is not easy for a poverty row prostitute in Boston, especially one who is remembered and despised for giving false testimony at the Salem witch trials. Among the men she services may be men who hate her and hunt her. If only she could be free of her sordid profession and live a life of comfortable anonymity. Along comes a squire with an enticing offer. Dare she take it?

This is a particular type of tale, one well thought out and convincing in detail. But to mention the genre is to give away too much. Derwin states he had a lot of fun writing it, but it’s not what I would deem a “fun” story. Something rather different and a classic of its type. I’m impressed.

Songbun

Premise:

The first North Korean Cosmonaut hopes a successful mission will elevate him and his family to the highest caste with all its perks. Unfortunately, he is absolutely terrified and convinced he will fail. That means death for all.

Review:

North Korea is governed according to an inflexible caste system called Songbun. There is virtually no upward mobility possible. Downward mobility, on the other hand, can be accomplished at the drop of a hat. A word from the Glorious Leader and even a member of the top caste can be ruined, or executed. Everyone has to stay on their toes in North Korea.

This is perhaps the most serious story in the collection. Songbun is very real and all pervasive. It is the hallmark of what may well be the most totalitarian form of government ever put into practice, with the possible exception of Cambodia’s Kymer Rouge. I would describe North Korea as Hitler’s wet dream, a form of mind control discipline he wanted but never quite achieved.

This story is dystopian, yes, but revelatory of an existing dystopia and valuable as a glimpse of the kind of mental gymnastics its citizens must perform to run in place, i.e. stay alive. In that North Korea may reflect the probable future of all societies, it might be described as the first successful nation of the coming era. A horrifying prospect.

I feel it is important to read this story. George Orwell would agree.

It Came to Eat Our Chicken Wings

Premise:

Wouldn’t you know, the first contact to actually take place involves an elephant-sized alien monster and a waitress from Hooters. We’re in good hands?

Review:

Good clean, silly fun. Definite change of pace from the previous story. The latter can give you heart palpitations from worry. This story makes you smile. They are each other’s antidote. Much appreciated.

The Faun and the Sylphide

Premise:

The male star of the Metro Toronto Ballet is worried he won’t perform well at a command performance before King Charles.

Review:

And just a reminder to Americans, Justin Trudeau is head of the Canadian government, but King Charles is our head of state. Among other things, he is King of Canada. So, in terms of tradition at least, performing for Charlie-boy is a big deal. You don’t want to screw up. Personally, because I swore an oath of allegiance to the Crown when I worked for Canada Customs decades ago, I figure he owes me a dinner at Buckingham palace, but I digress.

Suffice to say said ballet star, Alan Cornwell, discovers a source of inspiration which greatly improves his performance, but it also begins to alter his personality, and not for the better. His girl friend Denise, who is also his dancing partner, grows concerned, and then frightened. What is happening?

I love the way Mak incorporates hard science (however hypothetical) into this story of a psyche gone awry. Ballet is normally something I avoid like the plague, but I must admit the conundrum of this story intrigued me. The ending is an unexpected treat. Well done.

Seventy-Two Virgins

Premise:

Qabeel hopes to enter Paradise by suicide-bombing a Palestinian casino.

Review:

This is an interesting psychological study of a loser wanting to become a hero, a paranoid individual who feels betrayed by all those closest to him, and as a consequence wants to purify himself through martyrdom. Call it a rather drastic form of therapy to combat his inferiority complex.

Of course, there are many and varied reasons why an individual might choose to become a suicide bomber. In this particular case the character has trivialized his own life, because of his failed expectations, and even his personal solution, self-sacrifice, is trivialized by his rationalizations and attitude. To put it another way, he is no credit to the larger political cause because he is doing it for the pettiest of reasons. Nothing “noble” here.

In that sense, there is nothing political about this story. It’s really a case study of a loser inserting himself into a political situation purely for reasons of ego. Subtle humour, such as Qabeel’s obsession with the planned commercialism of his impending martyrdom, is used to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. Indeed, the ending depends on a sharp sense of satire, representing as it does a virtual explosion of absurdity. (There’s a pun in there somewhere.)

But, of course, suicide-bombing is a serious topic. In my opinion, apart from the subtle wit, this is as serious a story as the one dealing with Songbun, and equally depressing when you stop to think about it. Of course, one man’s deluded fool is another man’s heroic martyr. To some, all suicide bombers are heroes. They will interpret this story in purely political terms and won’t like it. Me, I think it makes some valid points.

As far as I know, I’m either commonsensical or a coward, and would be reluctant to volunteer to go to war, let alone sacrifice myself. But if war were forced upon me, I believe I would adopt the attitude which, if memory serves, is voiced at the beginning of the movie Patton. It goes something like this:

“The purpose of war is not to die gloriously for one’s country, but to make damn certain the enemy dies gloriously for his, as gloriously as he wants, so long as he dies.”

Or maybe that’s from another movie. Can’t remember. My memory sucks. Point is I agree with the concept insofar as there’s any useful logic in war. I don’t believe in martyrdom. But then, I’m an atheist, so what do I know?

Well, I know I’d rather sit in front of my computer writing a book review then go out and kill somebody. I’m just that kind of guy. Take it or leave it.

Cloned to Kill

Premise:

A military clone has taken refuge in a Catholic church. The company which made her wants her back. She claims sanctuary.

Review:

Legally clones aren’t human. So, Lorraine is no more than property. But the Catholic church has decreed that clones are human, replete with original sin that requires baptism. Father Markham is more than willing to protect her. But who will protect him?

I read long ago that the Vatican has already decided on religious policy if life is discovered on other planets, even if that life should visit Earth. If this be true, I’m willing to believe the church is actively working out a policy to apply to sentient self-aware robots, self-aware AI in general, and probably clones as well should they ever come to exist. No doubt the Devil’s Advocate, an official position within the Vatican, is putting in long hours. I mean, let’s face it, as an institution the church has always been proactive. That’s why they’ve lasted about 2,000 years. They believe in being prepared for any intellectually challenging eventuality. Though generally dogmatic, the church can be surprisingly flexible if necessity dictates. They don’t so much resist as absorb.

In this story, having initially resisted the advent of artificial human beings, the Vatican has come around to seeing clones as beings worth saving from the temptations of secular life, even though the law regards them as mere furniture. All sorts of moral issues are raised by this conflict.

When the New World was first discovered the Catholic church debated whether the “Indians” were human beings. Did they or did they not possess immortal souls? On the plus side, it was ruled that the answer was “Yes.” On the negative, it made no difference as to how they were treated by their conquerors. Therefore it is no surprise that the moral ambiguity of the situation is not resolved in this story, but it is thoroughly explored. Most thought provoking.

Family Tradition

Premise:

Chelsea is a Hooter’s girl. She is also a Van Helsing.

Review:

Life is good. Chelsea is saving up plenty of money for college. Trouble is the ghost of her great-great-great Grandad keeps showing up. He’s worried the last time he killed Dracula may not have been the last time. He wants Chelsea to help him find out if Dracula has revived and moved to Cocoa Beach Florida where she lives and works. She’s not interested. She’s having too much fun. Wouldn’t you know it? A handsome Romanian immigrant shows up at the restaurant. Immediately both Chelsea and her ghost relative are interested, but for different reasons.

This story is a lot of fun. It’s very playful. The reader winds up sympathising with all three main characters because each grows more and more frustrated that the other two won’t do their bidding. It makes for entertaining social dynamics. I enjoyed this.

Kleinheimat

Premise:

What if Israel was destined to lose the 1967 war? Except that the Turks invented time travel in 1917 and that changed everything. Or did it?

Review:

On the one hand this is a very sober account of the increasing oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, as seen through the experience of Jewish WWI war veterans living in the town of Kleinhiemat.

However, the presence of a time traveller complicates matters, as those aware of her presence can’t help but contemplate the possibilities should she choose to interfere with known history. She is well aware of the butterfly effect, and let’s those hiding her know all about the potential terrible consequences should she attempt to change anything. Still, how can preventing WWII and the Holocaust be a bad thing? But will that prevent the defeat of Israel in 1967, which is her primary objective? Some problems are easy to endlessly debate but never resolve. Is this one of them? What to do?

This story is excellent in portraying many of the rationalizations of those under threat in that era. It’s no easy matter facing up to the future, especially if you tend to hope difficulties are temporary and will blow over before things get out of hand. All the characters have varying opinions, and the essential conundrum is whether or not they can reach a consensus and actually do something. This is one of those stories where you eagerly await the resolution.

Just remember, history is only inevitable in hindsight. That provides the underlying tension in this story. For many reasons, it is quite powerful. Another serious, thought-provoking look at reality, albeit disguised as fiction.

How do we face the future? Especially when it is so often in your face and immune to wishful thinking? Definitely something to think about.

CONCLUSION:

A lot of mood swings in this collection, from the lightest comedies to the darkest of visions. Derwin Mak is a master of spare, precise yet vivid prose that takes you straight away into the story and never lets go. Indeed, some of the questions raised linger in your mind after you put the book down. This superb collection is a pleasure to read and think about.

Check it out at:    < Mecha-Jesus  >

Note: Currently available on Kindle. Will be available as paperback on March 08, 2024.

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