CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Imaginary Friends,” short story collection by Arlene F. Marks

Graeme reviews the short stories in this Arlene F. Marks collection.

CLUBHOUSE: Review: Imaginary Friends

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

Imaginary Friends – by Arlene F. Marks

Publisher: Brain Lag Publishing, Milton, Ontario, Canada, May 2022.

Note: All stories in this collection are by Arlene F. Marks.

Bemused

Premise:

Most children in the colony get their muse  early. Dianna didn’t get one till she was twelve. Funny thing. Instead of a light, it manifested as a cloud.

Review:

You can tell I like this story because I published it in Polar Borealis Magazine #17 back in February of 2021. I like it because it is a futurist interpretation of a classic Greek concept, because it is an effective coming of age story, and mainly because it speaks to anyone struggling through life to be creative in spite of the handicaps of mortal flesh and mortality.

I wonder how often people realise that the question “Do I want to be an artist/write/creator?” is the same thing as asking “Do I want to be alive?” This story makes that clear. It also provides an intriguing answer to the question.

Comfort Food

Premise:

A door appears, a gateway to another world, but what it opens on to is both limited and infinite in its potential.

Review:

Suffering from loss is universal. Nearly as universal is refusing to be happy because the contrast is too much to bear.  Many people lead miserable lives not out of wilful contrariness but out of necessity. It’s the only way to survive. Sometimes you need an outlier point of view to put things in perspective. Who could be more outlier than an alien? That makes the story science fiction. But the result shifts it into the realm of fantasy, depending on how the reader feels about it. Definitely a charming story.

The Witch in the Hood

Premise:

Some times the old lady that everyone in the neighbourhood shuns really is a witch.

Review:

A witch out to defend people from a peculiar variant of the Grim Reaper, one who delights in torturing his victims first. Not the classic, bored “civil servant” of yore, but a malignant entity which enjoys its job and in comparison makes the Grim Reaper look like a community services PR expert. But the witch is getting entirely too ancient and is in need of an apprentice. Fortunately, there’s a young girl in the hood who appears suitable. How to convince her?

This, too, is a coming of age tale, and a very realistic one in that coming of age solves no problems. It just leads to greater challenges.

Candles

Premise:

Rabbi Goldman is out of luck. He can’t stay on Earth. The Relocation Authority has assigned him the role of Chaplain aboard a starship.

Review:

Every starship has a chaplain. That’s official policy. Pity there are no Jews on board other than the chaplain. He grows used speaking to a chapel without a congregation. But then, dramatically, radically, he gets incredibly busy. If only it involved the living.

There’s tradition and then there’s tradition. Certainly Judaism is one of the oldest known to civilization. But what if civilization has evolved beyond tradition, beyond caring, beyond emotion? What if God is no longer relevant, even in private thoughts? What if love is all that remains, but duty comes first? How does a Rabbi dedicated to sharing God’s love and wisdom cope with a reality in which he, in essence, is unemployed and unwanted as a spiritual advisor? The crew have problems, yes, but they seek solace from the ship’s psychiatrist, not from its chaplain. Hard to be generous when your innate gifts of character are rejected.

I am an atheist, but only because I lack faith. I am not opposed to religion. And I have some grasp of human emotion (or so I like to think). Point is I empathise with the Rabbi’s frustration. For him his faith is a cornucopia of joy and comfort that he is willing to share, a means of celebrating life… but when life has become cold, routine, and devoid of promise, how can one carry on?

In the grand scheme of things Judaism at large has faced this conundrum many times and nevertheless managed to survive. In this case the focus of this story is narrow, applied to a single individual, yet in a peripheral sense concerns all individuals no matter whether religion is involved or not.  Call it a question of faith in personal purpose and meaning. We all face such tests, usually more than once.

I think this story is not so much a coming of age but a quest for reconciliation between destiny and fate. Believe me, they are two very different things. Destiny is what you are meant to achieve. Fate is what actually happens to you. Getting the two to work together be the Rabbi’s problem.

Judaism teaches the faithful to question everything, especially God’s will. And what a useful habit that is. Rabbi Goldman’s faith gives him a fighting chance to endure not only physically but also as a moral, thinking being both emotionally sound and intact. A role model, really.

Makes you think, this story does. Raises profound questions.

Freudian Slip

Premise:

Marcie is living the proverbial life of a 1950s housewife, and bloody boring it is.

Review:

Marcie relies on dreams to be happy, and soothing daydreams when she’s awake. Mostly, though, she just carries on with the expected routine. It’s a pity most of her waking moments are devoted to meeting other people’s expectations, but that’s what happens when you get married and have kids. Apparently.

But, unexpectedly, Marcie begins to sleep in, and worse, experience blackouts as if she’s a raging alcoholic. Except she isn’t. Something is out of control. Before, she felt constrained, as if strait-jacketed by life. Now she’s beginning to worry she might need one.

Be careful what you wish for. Amusing, even inspiring at first, it turns into a flat-out horror story. Subtly done and psychologically true to life. Powerful.

 Business is Business

Premise:

Not every day Satan walks into the store and asks to buy a state-of-the-art computer.

Review:

Seems Satan can’t cope with mankind’s growing sophistication. Simply throwing the damned into hellfire doesn’t cut it anymore because humans have introduced too much of it on Earth. Now everything needs to be tailored to the Individual and the resulting bureaucracy has gotten out of hand. He needs help. Technical help.

Thing is, the Devil is a cautious, wary customer. He doesn’t like being shafted by fine print. Worse, his normal deal-making techniques come to the fore if he is provoked, and he’s easily provoked. The salesman has to tread carefully.

I enjoyed this story tremendously. Dark humour at its best. I kept smiling throughout. Nothing profound here. Pure entertainment. Made my day.

Maury and Shred Go Ballistic

Premise:

As you always suspected, two of your professors are actually alien vampires. But that’s not their problem. Rather, it’s the ice sculpture made from liquid nitrogen that worries them. Seems it’s about to blow up.

Review:

Of course it’s more complicated than that. The story explains the technical details sufficient to establish the premise. No need for me to do the same. What’s important is that two professors are trying to pull a fast one on the Dean in a bid to retain popularity with their students, if not necessarily their jobs. Plausible? Within the context, yes. A light-hearted story. I enjoyed it.

One reason it resonates with me is it puts me in mind of the liquid nitrogen ice-cream Mr. Science (real name Al Betz) used to make for Vancouver’s VCON SF convention back in the day. On one occasion I went with him to pick up a cylinder of liquid nitrogen. I sat with it in the back seat of his car holding it upright between my legs as he drove us to the convention. It was open at the top to allow the cylinder to vent. Mr. Science warned me not to let it tip over because, should it spill, the liquid would instantly convert to gas and displace the breathable air inside the car. I was some focused on that cylinder’s upright stance during that ride, you may believe.

By the way, the trick to enjoying ice-cream made from liquid nitrogen is to let it warm up before putting it in your mouth. This requires a specific length of time known only to specialists. To put it another way, don’t try this at home. Unbelievably risky and potentially fatal. Fortunately, Mr. Science always took the appropriate precautions.

No precautions necessary to enjoy the story. It goes down smoothly and easily.

Doubling Back

Premise:

Margot knows how to time travel. She thinks she is the only one who knows how to do this. She is wrong.

Review:

As usual for time travel tales, things get complicated, very complicated. What makes this story stand out from the crowd of similarly-themed tales is partly the film noir aspect, Margot is a Private Eye, but more importantly, the unique nature of the method of time travel or, to be more specific, its limitations. This is not a case of going back in time and seeing how they things leisurely evolve once you’ve tweaked a change or two, the mechanics of time travel in this story force Margot to think things through before doubling back in time. If she guesses wrong, or operates on false assumptions, at best things get worse. Challenging, to say the least.

Margot doesn’t know what’s going to happen. You, the reader, don’t know what’s going to happen.  As the pace quickens the tension builds. Loads of suspenseful fun as both you and Margot try to figure out just what the hell is going on. Both of you broken out in a sweat (intellectually) by the time you read one of the best closing lines I’ve ever seen.

This story isn’t a typical time travel story. It’s not something you’ve read before. It’s original to the point of adding to the canon. And it be entertaining.

Mightier than the Sword

Premise:

What creates a supervillain?

Review:

A very short story, and consequently difficult to describe without giving too much away.

At one level, an exercise in psychology that makes perfect sense. It is implied that perhaps things could have been different. Certainly there’s a tendency for the popular news media to wring its hands and argue that if only the warning signs had been noted the tragedy could have been averted. People like to believe that. But that’s mendacious. After-the-fact wishful thinking. Possibly an aspect of grieving. At any rate, something impossible. Merely something people prefer to believe in order to avoid reality in their face. Call it denial.

However, this story isn’t really about that. It goes back to Pontius Pilate and “What is truth?” Or more accurately in this day and age, “What good is truth?” During the second world war Churchill commented (not for public consumption) that “truth is so precious it must be rationed.”  Today we know that some truths are so devastating it is better not to know. Is that true?

I have friends who are closet-Freuds. They firmly believe that revealing the truth will solve the problem, any problem. To know is to be cured. I don’t think so, but then I’m more of a closet-Jungian. Be that as it may, this story raises the question what do you do with truth once you know it? Do you dare risk sharing it with others? No matter what the consequence? I don’t know if the story will force you to make up your mind, but it will get under your skin and make you think. A useful story to place in a High School English Lit anthology methinks. Certainly the kind of question I want young people to entertain.  And there’s a few elder gents who could do with it as well.

The Best Defence

Premise:

The fur-harvesting mission went awry when Loew killed the rest of the crew.  For some reason he is being tried for murder.

Review:

Of course we will be careful when exploring another planet. Of course we will avoid exploiting any lifeform until we can be sure it isn’t intelligent. Then we’ll gut it as needed. Because it’s useful. But what if our initial conclusions were wrong? What if the resource fights back?

Essentially a story taking place in a courtroom. Despite the presumed lack of likely action, trial settings can be quite suspenseful and fascinating. This one certainly is. There’s unexpected twists and turns, not least the fact that aliens turn out to be even more alien than the reader anticipated. In short, there’s nothing simple about first contact. That’s the lesson this story imparts. It pays to be careful.

But, no matter how careful you are in interpreting this story and predicting what will happen, I guarantee you will find it more subtle, more complex, and more surprising than you first assumed. Well done, I say. Good story.

Manua’s Children

Premise:

What happens after a planet has been successfully colonized and the colonists flourish? Is their future all peaches and cream?

Review:

All is not what it seems. For one thing, changes are coming faster than anticipated. For another, too many changes. What is going on? And, in keeping with the spirit of modern times, is there a cover-up?

This is what I like about the best speculative fiction. Assumptions based on standard trope-awareness get stood on their head and suddenly it’s a whole new ball game. Now, this isn’t Harry Harrison’s ”Deathworld,” which I’m very fond of, but something more subtle. Here it is the threat of the planet going rogue which is the underlying problem. Or rather, the threat of the planet’s true nature rendering the colony inconvenient and temporary. Naturally this sets people at odds with one another, not unexpected since everybody has less and less in common as time goes by. Quite a problem over all. It’s difficult to figure out how to avoid the inevitable when you haven’t got the faintest idea what it is that is inevitable. All you know for certain is that you’ve got to avoid it. Kind of thing that keeps you awake at nights.

To sum up, a fascinating mystery with multiple revelations. Intriguing.

CONCLUSION:

Arlene has the knack of writing intelligent and original stories full of surprises and psychologically realistic characters. They’re all good and several are superb. This collection won’t be  published till May. It is well worth waiting for.

Available May 22. Pre-order here: <  Imaginary Friends  >

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