CLUBHOUSE: Review: On Spec Magazine #119

The latest issue, featuring an editorial on how NOT to write science fiction.

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

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #119, Vol. 32 No. 1.

Publisher: The Copper Pig Writer’s Society. Managing Editor and Art Director: Diane L. Walton.

Issue Designer: Jerry LePage. Poetry Editors: Barry Hammond, Charlie Crittenden, and Celine Low.

Fiction Editors: Barb Galler-Smith, Virginia O’Dine, Constantine Kaoukakis, Susan McGregor, Ann Marston, Laurie Penner, A.J. Wells, Diane L. Walton, Dan Gyoba, Greg Mitchell, Ethan Zou, Alyssa Kulchinsky, Barb Geiger, and Celine Low.

Cover Art: The World We Left Behind  – by Swati Chavda

Editorial: What’s Old is New and What’s New is Old – by Susan MacGregor

Review:

Susan was an On Spec editor for a couple of decades. She stepped way to concentrate on a trilogy that she ultimately self-published, and now she’s back. Her experience trying to land her novels with publishers is interesting. A universal conundrum for all writers.

But what really fascinates me is her non-fiction work The ABC’s of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction. Now in its third edition, it is based on her vast experience slogging through the On Spec slush pile. I’m afraid to read it. 90% of its advice probably applies to me. The more I write the more convinced I am I don’t know how to write. Hmm, maybe I NEED to read this book.

FICTION:

Oikos Needs Cook – by Geneviève Blouin (Translation by Margaret Sankey)

Premise:

 What price perpetual sustainability on family life?

Review:

 In the 1924 Soviet film Aelita, Queen of Mars, much emphasis is placed on the Bolshevik habit of cramming multiple families into mansions formerly occupied by a single wealthy family. Nothing more than an amusing period piece? Well, in this near-future tale, the period of “degrowth,” where everything must be sustainable, every home has become an Oikos, an ancient Greek term for the collective household of a given property, but here evolved into a “norm” of multiple families per house. Survival depends mostly on what the participants grow or make themselves. Usually just one individual has an outside job, and that simply to earn hard cash for needful items manufactured elsewhere. Not a lot of laughs, but people still care for each other.

Trace the development of extended-family village life from ancient times into futuristic collective living however you wish, I interpret this story as an exploration of the consequences of Hippiedom (a major influence in my youth) should it have become the absolute bedrock norm of economics enforced by law and custom. What would family life be like? And what sacrifices, even treasonable sacrifices, would a desperate person undertake in the cause of looking after their family?

Don’t want to give away too much, but even in this ”Hippie Paradise” of zero waste and absolute sustainability there are eternal human shenanigans at work which evoke both disgust and quiet amusement. In other words, no matter what “system” we impose, people remain people. Therein lies the source of all optimism.

What makes this story particularly interesting is its quiet examination of what many people think of as an ideal society that would solve every problem. The truth is yes, it would, and no, it wouldn’t. But it would make some people happy. That’s about all we can realistically hope for no matter how utopian the vision.

What You’re Paying For – (poem) by Lynne M. MacLean

Premise:

Is it possible to safely visit where Hansel and Gretel last tread?

Review:

Indeed, everything pays a price eventually. Highly original concept. A poem Swati Chavda could paint.

Sins Between Man and His Fellow – by Alex Langer

Premise:

 Rosa misses her Bubbie, her grandmother, but not to the point of welcoming her ghost.

Review:

 What differentiates this ghost story is the emphasis on the Jewish Shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning, and how various family members participate in and react to them. To someone as ignorant as I am this adds a whole new level of context and ambience to a story involving grief and its psychological and/or supernatural implications and expectations. Attributes a richness of texture to everything.

Cultural detail is a useful technique for writers to employ. It enhances the reader’s curiosity and thereby draws the reader deeper into the story. I wanted not only to better understand the circumstances of Bubbie’s death and whether or not her ghost was real or a figment of Rosa’s beleaguered imagination, but also what comfort or stress the Shiva would bring to the granddaughter’s thoughts. Empty ritual or healing tradition? An inquiring mind wants to know.

What Bones Remain – by Cynthia Zang

Premise:

Gran intends to die the morning of her funeral. Witches are like that. Everything orderly.

Review:

Yes, Tabitha loves her Gran, but her love springs from knowledge and her practical mentality. In that she resembles her Gran, cold and calculating, emotions irrelevant. Probably that’s why her Gran singled her out for special attention. Of course, most of the relatives have power, but few put it to anything other than spiteful uses. Only Gran as all-seeing matriarch holds the family together. Will Tabitha replace her? Tabitha is too aloof to care. Just like Gran.

This story is about a family of supernatural legacy hunters, the most powerful, Tabitha,  being immune to desire and requiring no legacy. Quite a conundrum for Gran. What to do about it?

Family relationships are a difficult thing. Not always easy. Especially when all are hoping to share the spoils. Except Tabitha. Honourable? Or indifferent? Gran decides to put her to one last test. Nothing depends on the outcome. And everything.

Strikes me as a very original take on witchcraft. The craft itself is taken for granted. But that it can be used for personal feuds as family members jockey for position is intriguing. Human beings, even when empowered, never cease to be petty. At the very least, if not a law of nature, a law of fiction.

Three Knives – by Jared Millet

Premise:

Pete’s dad was quite the character. He knew how to cross over to alternate worlds. Too bad Pete can’t. There’s no escaping this one.

Review:

Thing is, Dad showed Pete’s wife how to cross. That’s how she fled from him, leaving him to bring up their two children all alone. But now there are sign’s she’s back. Is she out for revenge? Are the kids in danger? Is he?

Matters get complicated real fast. Since Rita left, Pete’s life has been drenched in fear and paranoia. Turns out he hadn’t been paranoid enough. He is in no way prepared to cope with what’s happening now. The police can’t help. A detailed explanation would simply place him in a strait jacket. What to do?

Just when Pete thinks he has a handle on the situation and a means of coping, everything goes sideways. It’s almost as if Rita has spent all the intervening years plotting revenge. Hard to catch up and surpass that level of planning on the spur of the moment. Pete is very close to panic.

How everything is revealed and resolved is the chief pleasure this story offers. In fact everything makes sense, but this isn’t clear till the final pieces of the puzzle are in place. A story in the finest tradition of who-done-it mysteries, or rather, who’s-about-to-do-what mysteries. I enjoyed it. Kept me guessing.

Infected – by Koji A. Dae

Premise:

What if you can share your mind with the love of your life? What if your wife doesn’t want you to?

Review:

Not cyber-punk exactly. Simply a future where appropriate implants and computer programs allow you to share the thoughts and emotions of another in a virtual no-mans land. Of course, like any technology, it is open to manipulation and abuse, especially when the spirit of revenge is involved.

In this story we share the thoughts of the perpetrator universally condemned and reviled. It is an interesting study of guilt and rationalization, of acceptance and denial. Further proof, if needed, that a third party can bugger up a relationship.

But more than a statement of relationship, this is treatise on how relationships can be misinterpreted and transformed into a self-destructive process of rationalization so palpable as to become a parasitical entity in its own right. Almost as if the proverbial “Black Dog” is another being sharing your brain, an alien presence more powerful than your sense of self, and ultimately responsible for heinous actions which you, alone, free of its influence, would otherwise never commit. But, of course, you are the one who has to face the consequences.

In sum, quite a philosophical story examining guilt and rationalization in great detail. One thing’s for sure, life is a lot simpler and easier if you don’t go around hurting people. This story makes that clear.

Where We Felt with Moss – (poem) by Marisca Pichette

Premise:

Nature requires a lot of work.

Review:

Beautiful imagery of the work involved. I think it is obvious what is doing the work but I won’t say because a) it would give too much away, and b) I might be wrong. So I’ll just make the cryptic comment that it reminds me of a certain well-known exercise in my university acting class.

A pleasant and cheerful poem.

Sales Pitch – by Michèle Laframboise

Premise:

The Earth has exceeded its warranty and the human extinction event is overdue. Fortunately a bunch of alien vendors arrived on the Moon and do they have a deal or what?

Review:

Michèle likes writing “hard and crunchy” SF stories. She’s also gifted with a great sense of humour. This makes for an entertaining read.

The aliens took a long time traveling to our Solar System. Fortunately they were able to while away the time monitoring our ancient radio and TV broadcasts. By the time they showed up they had evolved their physical form to resemble the sort of folks they think we’d find the most trustworthy. Meanwhile, knowing that their understanding of human nature is based entirely on old movies and lame situation comedies, the entire human team for the diplomatic/business negotiations has been transformed into stock, stereotypical characters of the sort the aliens are expecting to meet. There’s not a single sentient honestly representative of its true nature present at the negotiations. This complicates matters.

The hard science aspect has to do with the mindboggling technology the aliens are offering as the solution to our problems and what the human race is offering in return. But the core of the story focuses on assorted boggled minds and what can be accomplished if they can come to a consensus. Not an easy thing to do when all the humans and all the aliens are fakes pretending to be what they are not. Personally, I found the whole process amusing. It helps if you are familiar with the history of science fiction hero types. But even if you are not, the humour comes across. Frankly, I found the story delightful. Old-fashioned and fun.

Dragon’s Fire – by Katrina Nicholson

Premise:

The niece of the Emperor of China stows away on a British Airship. The fate of both empires depends on her.

Review:

 I quite like this story. For one thing, it is steam-punk. For another, it provides an alternate history to the infamous Halifax explosion. As a Canadian, I appreciate that.

But what will appeal to all fans of steam-punk, I figure, is that it is entirely from the Chinese cultural viewpoint utilizing British Imperials and Imperialism purely as backdrop. A nice antidote to the preponderance of stiff-upper-lip Britishism in the steam-punk genre. An original approach, to say the least.

And, may I say, the alternate Chinese history aspect is also very refreshing. For example, the Empress Dowager actually lived for a very long time. That she would be executed in order to unleash progressive elements is quite startling. Just goes to show, that impressive as the long march of Chinese history is, the potential for alternate history is even more staggering.

By the way, can you spot the historical pun?  Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just me being an idiot. I’m rather spontaneous and uninhibited that way.

Best of all, you don’t have to know any history to appreciate the story.  It’s what the British used to call “a ripping good yarn” as is. Most entertaining.

Wayfinder – by Marcelle Dubé

Premise:

Living in the Yukon, Abby questions the value of being a superhero. Not very rewarding or lucrative. But than a First Nations elder calls upon her for help.

Review:

Abby is about to give up her calling. Not a lot of demand for superheroes in Whitehorse. She won’t be able to keep paying her meagre rent at this rate. Time to get a regular day job?

The contrast between extraordinary personal power and virtually zero demand or appreciation of said power is intriguing enough. But when First Nation’s mythology, or belief (depending on your point of view) enters the equation, the heroine vs. villain conflict is elevated to a confrontation with a spiritual entity, a deity some would say, and that is a serious escalation indeed.

Not merely a matter of struggle. Offending a god, any god, carries serious risks. Just ask Ulysses, or Achilles. But Abby instinctively knows what to do. Or so she thinks.

This encounter is possibly a metaphor for the ongoing cultural clash between First Nations and other peoples in the Canada of today (which is multicultural indeed). Judging from this story, calm respect would appear to be vital. At any rate, it can’t hurt.

A relatively short story, but quite powerful in its real world implications. Thought provoking, and usefully so.

NON-FICTION:

“Memory of Loss” Interview with Swati Chavda – by Cat McDonald

I love Swati’s art.  She is currently on the ballot of the Aurora Awards in the “Best Artist” category on the strength of three cover art pieces she did last year for the two semi-professional magazines I publish: Polar Borealis and Polar Starlight. Her genre-related art has a strong sense of both timelessness and a sense of place, even if the place is cosmic in nature. As she explains in her interview, a recurrent theme is a sense of loss for what once was, such that what remains is tremendously emotionally evocative. This ongoing “memory of loss” is reflected in many characters in her fiction as well. I can’t think of a better way to conjure up that “sense of wonder” I am always in search of when I look at speculative art or read speculative fiction. Her art stirs my imagination and set it adrift in reverie. Her talent is one of the reasons I love the genre as much as I do.

“How I Discovered SF on my Father’s Bookshelves” Interview with Michèle Laframboise

– by Cat Mcdonald

Michèle is the living embodiment of the fundamental trope that the only way to get published is to write. She writes constantly. On multiple projects at the same time. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word procrastination. And writer’s block? Forget it. Not in her vocabulary.

Part of this is explicit in the interview. But mostly I know her pace through a weekly writers zoom meeting I host. She is inspiring, and considers it part of her duty as a writer. Every week she pestered me to tell her how much I had written on the SF novel I’m working on. That I finished the first draft earlier than I anticipated is due to her. Now she’s after me to get on with my revision. She’s a dynamo, for herself, and for others. An amazing bundle of creative energy.

In the interview she shares her thoughts on the creative process, her motivations, her likes and dislikes. What I found especially intriguing is her comparison of French Canadian science fiction and English Canadian science fiction. Evidently they are quite different, which makes translation from one to the other less than straight forward and far from easy. Read the interview to understand how and why this is so.

Comics & Bots: Canadian Zombies & Kawaii3 – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

Great fun these, as always.

CONCLUSION:

 I suppose the main theme of the majority of contributions to this issue is how family relationships can be disturbed by external influences. That said, the contributions nevertheless exhibit a wide variety of original concepts and are all worth reading no matter what the limitations of your personal taste. Good writing is good writing, and everything in this issue is good. Expect your limitations to be expanded. One of the virtues of good writing.

Check it out at:  < On Spec #119 >

 

 

 

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