CLUBHOUSE: Review: On Spec Magazine issue #120

Well worth reading, every bit of it.   

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

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #120, Vol. 32 No. 2.

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: “Clockwork Raven” – by Kari-Ann Anderson

Editorial: Tempus Fugit – by Diane L. Walton

Review:

A look back at how the submission process for On Spec has changed over time. Fair to say it is a complex, multi-layered gauntlet honed into a precise and timely state of efficiency. Very encouraging for would-be contributors to know.

FICTION:

Gypsy Biker’s Coming Home – by Douglas Smith

Premise:

The ten women are a closeknit team, just like their biker husbands who died in a far-off war. Today the town is celebrating the heroes. The women want revenge.                                             

Review:

Some people maintain the best science fiction is really about today, albeit extrapolating current trends forward in order to demonstrate how lousy everything already is. Well, there’s a certain amount of truth to that definition of the genre.

But I’m old-fashioned. I like to believe in the joy of the concept, in the worth of speculation,  such that the imagined consequences of contemporary developments not only serve as commentary on the idiocy of today, they provide a glimpse of a potential future which, utopian or dystopian, stirs my sense of wonder. Not necessarily describing a future I want to be a part of, or even a future I want to avoid, but a hypothetical concept fascinating in itself.

And what particularly intrigues me is extrapolations which are non-linear but wig off in all directions, or at least one unanticipated direction, revealing an implication or two which had never occurred to me before. This story definitely does that.

Now, some idiots believe we should wire our brains to computers. Some bigger idiots even promise to do that within a few years. I mean, J.H.C., we haven’t even figured out how our own brains actually work despite idiot claims to the contrary… I keep thinking of declarations by prominent “thinkers” (as influencers were known back then) circa 1900 that all the basic scientific knowledge had been discovered and all that was left was tinkering new consumer gadgets into existence. Believe me, medical science 100 years from now will laugh over the proud ignorance of today. And doesn’t anyone remember the monsters from the id? I guess not.

Anyway, this remarkable story combines the concept of computer-infested brains with drone warfare. The ten bikers in question, chosen because of their toughness and physical strength, are converted into soldier-drones piloted by “experts” sitting half a world away. The drones perform magnificently, assisting in the capture of a city, but are killed in the course of the battle.

Granted, this can be seen as a commentary on the essential heartlessness of war in terms of what happens to the grunts no matter how brave and courageous they are. But just as they were altered by their “bionic” conversion, so public attitudes about war and soldiering have been subtly shifted by not-so-subtle propaganda. Mindless, unthinking patriotism is still in vogue, but, if anything, the public perception treats soldiers as virtually worthless. In other words, in the future, it will suck far worse to be a soldier. Not just because increased technology renders the profession even more dangerous, but because the new order / system / public mood / call it what you will, makes a virtue out of expendability.

Mind you, human nature remains the same. There’s the usual lot of crumbums seeking to exploit the contemporary reality, but at the same time, volunteerism has virtually disappeared. And, refreshingly, the ten widows hatch a plot to take revenge on those most directly responsible for the deaths of their husbands. Not that it will overthrow or change the system, but it will be mighty satisfying if they can pull it off.

Looking into the future, I’m glad I’m too old to be drafted. Besides, nobody in their right mind would want to hook my brain up to a computer. Fact is this story makes me glad to be just me without add-ons, or add-ins. Makes the present seem more comfortable.

As an E.C. horror comic sort of melodrama, the story works very well. But what I particularly appreciate are all the subtle touches which make this horrible potential future credible and realistic, at least to the extent of accepting the premise whole-heartedly. This story works on every level. Powerful and thought-provoking.

The Once Beating Heart of the Future – by Kristene Perron

Premise:

What if you treat the fetus in your womb as just another self-affirming gizmo? Are you still human?

Review:

I admit I dislike this story precisely because it is a very good story. It, too, takes a current trend and extrapolates it into the future in a very disturbing way.

There used to be an electronic device (probably still exists in a much more sophisticated form) which owners treated as a pet. Idea was it had to be “fed” and “petted” on a sporadic and ongoing basis or else it would “die.” It became an utterly useless and life-disrupting obsession for many.

Couple this with modern “influencers” and their imitators, often pursuing shallow, selfish tasks in endless pursuit of reaffirming self-praise proving they are, moment by moment, keeping pace with the latest trends. Some, of course, are known to practice this “life style” to a ludicrous extreme. Well, this story goes beyond that.

The main character is “hooked” to her fetus by a kind of performance meter as if the sole purpose of pregnancy is to entertain the mother. (I suspect that isn’t true.) The fact of her pregnancy is merely part of a larger electronic situational awareness allowing the young women to swim in a miasma of self-praise and one-upmanship (one-upwomanship?) making her the best of her besties. She’s very pleased.

Unfortunately, her parents take a dim view of her lifestyle and want her out of the house. She is unable to understand why. What’s wrong with obsessive total self-absorption? It’s the latest thing. And it’s all utterly dependant on the latest super-duper electronic technology. A consumer paradise? More like a vision of Hell.

A vision portrayed with sufficient subtle detail to make you involuntarily fear the future.

Makes me wonder if modern youth could cope with the conditions of my youth: no bank machines, no calculators, no computers, no internet, no cell phones, no Wi-Fi coverage, no debit cards, and so on. Imagine having to go to a bank on your lunch break and talk to a teller to get cash? Imagine having to actually meet people in order to meet people? Young minds would boggle, I’m sure.

More to the point, many a story back when I was a kid dealt with the idea that increased automation would lead to humans deteriorating physically to the point of always being cared for by robots. This story is more horrifying. It depicts “bread and circuses” reduced to interactive gizmos that encourage the mind to betray itself by sinking into a rut of silly, senseless pleasure. Never has the concept of “mindless consumer” been made more real.

Broken Vow: The Adventures of Flick Gibson, Intergalactic Videographer

– by Peter G. Reynolds

Premise:  

Filming a wedding is a boring job. Even when the bride and groom are alien. But enter interplanetary politics and suddenly the job is too exciting.

Review:  

This is a pulp-like throwback to old-fashioned science fiction adventure-humour. No serious extrapolation intended. Just an amusing premise with a silly screw-up that ultimately gets resolved with an unexpected solution. Loads of fun throughout. A relaxed, pleasant read. Kind of an antidote to the previous two stories. I know I ranted about “silly, senseless pleasure” earlier, but only if that were the permanent state of affairs. Small doses serve a useful purpose, a psychologically sound purpose. Doesn’t hurt to chuckle once in a while. Keeps you sane. This story is good for you.

Dante Goes West – (Poem) by Colleen Anderson

Premise:

Is the Wild West Hell? Study the birds for clues.

Review:

Beautiful comparison of birds with the humans seeking their fortune in the supposedly limitless possibilities of the western frontier.

Regarding the Influx of Skeletons Coming Out from the Soil in Our Community Garden

– by Patrick Barb

Premise:

Stop complaining about the skeletons clawing their way out of the community garden. Don’t you remember what the neighbourhood used to be like?

Review:

This story hits close to home. It’s really about the homeless and what to do about them. I live in a small town whose rate of crime has shot up 44% over the past year and the homeless get most of the blame. Establishing a garden represents all the make-everything-look-nice projects the city fathers come up with in lieu of doing anything to prevent or resolve crime. The homeless problem is one of those things people argue over incessantly but to no avail, it just keeps getting worse. I’m forced by reality to understand that there is no solution and we just have to get used to living with it forever and ever. This story, in the form of a fantasy allegory, makes that depressingly clear. And by the way, it features one heck of an impactful closing sentence. Sums everything up with considerable force. Such is the power of insightful fiction.

Song of the Exiles – (Poem) by Swati Chavda

Premise:

Life on a colony planet. Not as easy as you think.

Review:

Poignant and hopeful. That’s one way to survive. Beautiful poem.

Where You Go – by Somto Ihezue Onyedikachi

Premise:

The African vision of the end of the world is very different from the western idea of the apocalypse.

Review:

I speak from ignorance as I know next to nothing about African mythos.  However, witchcraft, and the concept of magic-wielders so powerful as to constitute demigods, strikes me as authentic to African tradition. Nothing happens by accident, all is the result of spell-casting. Those who seek to break a spell attempt to kill those deemed responsible. Reality a kind of war between battling mages.

Yet love and family remain universal. As is the desire to set things right and allow good to triumph over evil. In that sense, the basis of the story is universal, too. But what a richness of detail! The context of the story, the wealth of unfamiliar mythos, is new and invigorating to someone who has never known these concepts. It reads like a story in which every facet is the product of imagination. In fact much is probably the common fabric of widespread belief taken for granted by those who believe, with the imagination and vision of the author applied to new interpretation and extrapolation of what the mythos implies. The overall result is quite delightful. A breath of fresh air.

Granted, the gist of the story is about grief and loss; very serious matters indeed. Much has become extinct, including numerous species of animals and various tribes, yet the human spirit endures. Despite the chaos and mass death, there’s hope, which is perhaps the most universal emotion . This story, so thoroughly grounded in centuries old traditions, speaks to us all.

Shortest Route – by Aaron Humphrey

Premise:

Is a car that can find the quickest way home really what you need when the aliens arrive?

Review:

Again, an amusing story with a simple premise that is a bit of a throwback to an earlier era. The car is not self-driving. It’s not that kind of what-was-once science fiction. Instead, it is equipped with a device inspired by the “principle of least time” invented by physicist and mathematician Richard Feynman. Somehow it “allows” the driver to intuitively figure out the shortest route. Genuine science fiction, albeit fantasy science fiction. Don’t recall reading about anything like it before. Would seem to be an original concept.

At any rate it’s the central gimmick or “impossible thing” on which the story rests. The question becomes, is it a help or a hindrance in dealing with the kind of roadblock an unexpected alien visitation represents? Therein lies the fun of the story. Not exactly thought-provoking or meaningful, but entertaining.

Five Questions for Monthly Routine Check of FTL Drive Chief Operators – by Renan Bernardo

Premise:

Five multiple choice questions exploring the true implications for human operators if Faster Than Light space travel ever becomes possible.

Review:  

This is true hard science fiction. Accept a probably-impossible premise that everyone wants to believe in, and explore all possible implications and consequences for the poor suckers dealing with it. Not just their job, but given they are stuck aboard the damn things, their life-style every waking moment, and even when they’re asleep, for that matter.

As technology grows, so, too, does a disconnect with reality. Long ago, ships sailing to the arctic and Antarctic were manned by men totally familiar with the hardships and privations that their multi-year voyages would demand of them. Not to mention the dangers. They knew what they were in for. But they were keen to go anyway. At least they got to see Polar Bears, or Penguins, depending.

But now we see people fantasising about going to Mars as if they’d be boarding a private yacht to go to Club Med. Everything will be clean and shiny, and everything will function well and not break down, and all the people aboard will function well and not break down. There seems to be a cruise director mania involved in such thinking.

In fact the zero gravity toilet will clog, the hydroponics vegetables will die off for no discoverable reason, and not everybody will be happy with the Captain’s epiphany that you don’t have to waste water washing clothes, just rotate them, wearing each item only once every ten shift changes. And what about engine chief who gets the idea the lab mice are alien spies? I’m telling you, Murphy’s law rules and every expedition has to plan for this. Artsy-fartsy airy-fairy visions have no place in the reality of long space voyages.

This story is a useful counter-measure to overly optimistic visions of what future technology may bring. It offers a hard dose of reality.

Although, come to think of it, not entirely hard. There are poignant aspects of regret over family left behind that remind me of the short stories of Ray Bradbury. I have the feeling that Ray Bradbury would have enjoyed reading this story, precisely because it echoes his belief that the most fundamental aspect of the human race, whenever and wherever we go, is our own humanity. This story merits the Ray Bradbury seal of approval.

One other thing of note, in his bio the author mentions he is a Brazilian computer engineer working “in a project that one day might cast the Earth in a black hole.” Ahh… hmm… something about that worries me for some reason. Can’t imagine why.

Water from a Duck’s Back – by Geoff Hart

Premise:

Jacques isn’t stupid, but he’s big and slow. He has a nice little apartment and a decent job. Then he gets fired, and begins a long but inevitable decline toward living on the street.

Review:

It doesn’t take much to wind up homeless. I never really got rid of that fear in the back of my mind till I retired with a few small but guaranteed pensions. I recall standing on the edge of a bluff overlooking Vancouver harbour early one morning many years ago, and being startled to glance down and see a man in a business suit sleeping on a steam grate. The woman curled up beside him was wearing a decent dress that was rather dirty and disheveled. Life can crumble unbelievably fast, and, of course, it’s always so damn unfair when that happens. But it happens. Or can happen. When you least expect it. I suspect that’s one reason so many people fear the homeless. There but for the grace of God go I, etc.

But this is a fantasy story. Bit by bit it becomes apparent that there’s more than meets the eye out and about the streets late at night. Furthermore, it turns out Jacques is more complicated a character than even he ever anticipated. This ultimately gives him options denied to the average down-and-outer.

Geoff sets up the transition sparingly, introducing minor clues here and there which inexorably lead to the conclusion of the tale. Nice to see the supernatural incorporated in a description of modern Montreal. He blends them seamlessly together so that the premise, once revealed, is completely credible in the context of the story. Builds nicely to a satisfying ending. Well done.

NON-FICTION:

“But with Defiance and Hope,” Author Interview with Douglas Smith – by Cat McDonald

Douglas discusses his influences, the value of critique workshops, and his personal approach to writing.

Artist Interview with Kari-Ann Anderson – by Cat Mcdonald

Kari-Ann talks about her taste in genres, differences in technique, and advice she feels beginning artists need.

Comics & Bots: “Mars Colonization” & “Henry 300”  – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

Great fun these, as always.

CONCLUSION:

 Quite a spectacular variety in the stories offered. Well worth reading, every bit of it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Check it out at:  < ON SPEC #120  >

P.S. This is the 200th CLUBHOUSE column I’ve written for Amazing Stories, on top of the 61 blogs written previously, for a total of 261 articles. I think I’m in for the long term.

 

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