CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Summer of Sci-Fi & Fantasy” edited by Dustin Bilyk

…mainstream publishers save money by doing zero editing and zero promotion, small independent publishers put more effort into producing the same poor results, and the majority of writers flog themselves to death with self-promotion efforts…

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

SUMMER OF SCI-FI & FANTASY: Vol. 1

Published by Author’s Hand Publishing Company, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, in May, 2022.

Editor: Dustin Bilyk.  Associate Editor: Jessica Kelly.  Intern Editor: Nick Clements.

Cover art by emilysworldofdesign.

Note: This is virgin territory for me as a reviewer. Author’s Hand is a service-publisher founded by Dustin in 2017. By that I mean an author pays Author’s Hand for everything from author—mentoring whipping a concept into shape, through developing and editing, to actually preparing the manuscript format for this or that e-gizmo and placing it on the market. Each step in the process appears to be a separate service billed separately. No mention of what the rates are. However, free first consultations are offered to give the author an idea of what may or may not be possible and whether or not the particular service is right for them.

In the good old days when the world was pure and virtuous (according to people with zero memory skills) a writer had two choices: be accepted by a professional publisher who would pay you for a product ignored by the reading public despite the publisher spending tons of money on promotion, or pay a vanity publisher to fill with a basement with unsold copies of your book. Oh, those were the fun days all right.

Now, as often as not, mainstream publishers save money by doing zero editing and zero promotion, small independent publishers put more effort into producing the same poor results, and the majority of writers flog themselves to death with self-promotion efforts with self-published works that often earn as much as three digits. Allegedly, the average writer earns $1,000 a year. Each is competing with literally millions of other writers desperate to be noticed by the reading public. And yet, some get lucky and hit the big time.

But this is on par with the “American Dream” where all you have to do is come up with a cool idea—like pet-rocks—and you will become an instant millionaire. For every winner you get hordes of losers like the guy who released thousands of miniature glass oil rigs titled “Own Your Own Iranian Oil Well” the very week the US Embassy hostage-taking took place. Lost his life savings he did. In other words, chances of success in self-publishing are slim to none because, well, the vast majority of self-published authors are losers. They never earn enough money to cover their costs, let alone make a profit.

Ah, but if only you could hire expert advice. Trouble is, as always, there are flimflam, ballyhoo con-artists galore out there eager to take your money and give you virtually nothing in return. For example, they promise to put your book “prominently” on display at the International Book Fair in Frankfort, Germany. Said companies rent just one table and pile hundreds of books from their sucker clientele on top of one another and no reputable distributor so much as glances at them. The “Buyer Beware” files on the SFWA website attest to many fraudulent publishers, editors, agents, etc. By the way, you don’t have to be a SFWA member to consult those constantly-updated lists. It’s a valuable service indeed, with much useful advice on what to watch out for. (Writer Beware – Ed.)

But… but… but… There exist highly-skilled professionals earning a living shepherding beginning writers through the process of learning what they need to know to render their works competitive. Sure, the costs can add up, but being taught how to avoid typical beginner’s mistakes and wind up with a product reeking of confidence, talent, and professionalism is priceless. Once you’ve got the basics down pat, the skills imparted to you can earn dividends over and over. Luck still plays a major role, but at least your talent is on proper display and evident to all who dare to read your work. That’s how word of mouth begins to spread, which is the greatest blessing a writer can hope for.

So, the question is whether Author’s Hand Publishing is a legit service-publisher or not. Never having used them, I have no first-hand knowledge. Their website is well laid-out, neat and clean, easy to read, and professional-looking. Dustin’s blogs on aspects of editing are precise, logical, and knowledgeable. The testimonials appear sincere. Author’s Hand has gotten about two-dozen self-published books into print; both fiction and non-fiction, over the past five years. All good indications this is a reputable service. If you decide to contact Dustin, be sure to ask lots of pertinent questions. My gut feeling, based on his website, is that he will give you straight answers. Ultimately, up to you to decide if you want the services he offers.

So, what’s with the Summer of Sci-Fi and Fantasy anthology? I suspect it is designed to showcase what Author’s Hand can accomplish. First in an annual series, for one thing. For another, it exhibits Dustin’s no-nonsense business sense. Production costs entirely paid for from a successful $6,000 Kickstarter campaign. That’s a lesson in itself. And something else that’s rather striking. The pay rate for accepted stories is $0.0005 per word. Talk about symbolic, token payment! And here I thought my Polar Borealis Magazine rate of $0.01 a word (all I can afford to pay) was the bottom-of-the-barrel minimum rate. I guess, as is the case with my publications, the token payment’s primary purpose is to allow another “sale” to be recorded on the author’s resume.

Hmmm. If I were to cut my pay rate to $0.0005 I could afford to publish a lot more stories… but how many contributors would submit?

Summer of Sci-Fi & Fantasy contains 23 stories, including a number by prominent Canadian authors. The pay rate was obviously no deterrence. Could be Dustin is well-known to many authors and his personal reputation was the basis for a healthy influx of submissions. That’d be my guess.

At any rate, I choose to review 6 of the stories, starting with one by Dustin himself.

The Calamity of Opid – by Dustin Bilyk

Premise:

 Raegard Threetree is infected by a wyrm. Believe me, much worse than a tapeworm.

Review:

Opid is the wyrm’s name. It is highly intelligent, and has the ability to overwhelm its host’s thoughts. Great powers of inhuman concentration would be required to guide a knife that cuts out the abomination. Trouble is, the more the wyrm is threatened, the more pain it inflicts. Should it be successfully removed, much like a gall bladder operation before the invention of anesthesia, the shock would kill the host.

So why not live with it? Treat it as a symbiotic parasite to be ignored? Because it sucks out more energy and life force the bigger it gets, and eventually abandons the host for the next stage of its life cycle, a separation which always kills the host.

In a sense, living with a wyrm inside you is like living with cancer, except this cancer guides your dreams, tells you what to do or not do, and torments you with its sadistic sense of humour. Hard to be hopeful or optimistic under these circumstances.

Fortunately, Raegard can cure himself with an elixir owned by the King, but in order to acquire it he needs to slaughter the fearsome corpse hound which has been plaguing the kingdom, thus earning the gratitude of the King who will, in theory, reward him with the elixir.

But, of course, the wyrm does not want to be cast out before it has grown to the size appropriate to being on its own. If Raegard is successful, Opid the wyrm will die. Yet if Raegard is unsuccessful, and is killed by the corpsehound, the wyrm will die with him. This lose/lose scenario annoys the wyrm.

The underlying premise transforms a typical quest into a conflict of wills wherein both parties are trying to stop each other from buggering things up but neither party knows how to achieve success. This makes for much fascinating conversation and many twists and turns in terms of motivation and schemes. Livens things up in fact. In a sense the bickering is more important than the quest. The reader is kept guessing how things will turn out all the way to the end. Quite an original take on what in other hands would probably be a cliché account of tromping from point A to point B. Here the quest is mere background. It’s the character interaction which entertains.

Add to this the fact that Dustin is a competent and skilled writer who effortlessly carries the reader along without knocking them out of the story at any point. Greatly adds to the enjoyment of the tale. And strongly hints Dustin does indeed have what it takes to edit and improve someone else’s writing.

Split Decision – by Robert Runté

Premise:

Biology class can be pretty boring. But when a flying saucer lands on the ice rink beside the classroom windows…

Review:

First, a digression. I remember the day we had to dissect frogs. They’d been kept in the fridge but were still alive, so they had to be pithed. All the girls eagerly stuck needles into the frog’s brains but none of the guys did. We were too weirded out… And the day we had to dissect a locust, I refused. My insect phobia was sky-high back then. The body, maybe, but not the head. That was the seat of it’s alien intelligence. Too freaky for me… I eventually won an award in biology, probably because my experimental subjects were the only ones in the class to survive the year. I was testing the intelligence of tiny saltwater crabs (spoiler alert, none whatsoever) and it was a great day when I released them back into the ocean. Odd thing is, while in my care, they would only eat back bacon. But enough digression.

This is a very Canadian story. The kids examine every possibility from all angles and second guess their every move. They hardly pay attention to the aliens at all. Fortunately the aliens in this story are very patient. Positively Canadian-like in truth. Probably why they chose to land in Canada in the first place. They knew they didn’t have to worry. The locals are sympatico.

The protagonist, an unnamed and rather impulsive lad, has the irritating habit of explaining things and then backtracking to explain what he really meant. This makes for a jerky exposition process, but then his thoughts are sliding all over the place anyway, so his point of view comes across as entirely convincing for the sort of young lad he is. The type who normally drive teachers to distraction. The result is an amusing take on first contact which is more of a psychological study than your typical Sci-fi tale. Something of a rapid-fire tour of the first contact cliches you might expect from all the movies you’ve seen and the stories you’ve read. Which is why the ending, a genuine science fictional surprise, is quite startling. Hadn’t anticipated it at all. Well done, Robert!

The Art of Failure – by Robert Dawson

Premise: 

First contact is difficult when the aliens consider a battle in space the polite way of beginning a diplomatic conversation.

Review:

Armitage is responsible for deciphering the alien’s unknown language. Bad enough the underlying concepts are bizarre. Even worse to discover their rigidly stratified society prevents overall cooperation. Worst of all, their society might even be as complex and nuanced as human society, in which case trade and friendly relations could well be impossible.

The solution, he decides, is to exploit their social norms in such a way as to trick them into doing what the humans want them to do. But if he has misinterpreted how they think and function, the result could be a disaster, one potentially fatal for the humans, or at least fatal to the purpose of their mission. Not only that, but if the aliens are attempting to pull the same trick on him…

This is a delightful story exploring all sorts of possibilities in a situation where nothing is certain. I once read a first-person account of a Byzantine diplomatic mission to the court of Attila the Hun. That was a piece of cake compared to this diplomatic conundrum. One wrong move…heck, one right move could ruin everything. Fun story.

Alison’s Bluff – by Noah Chinn

Premise:

When secret agents play poker, they all know everyone is cheating.

Review:

This takes place in a future or an alternative world where psi powers have become routine tools in every conceivable form of spying and espionage. This has tremendous advantages, despite everyone possessing the same powers. And yet, never mind double or triple agents, what if situational awareness is continually blind-sided by multiple layers of duplicity, bluster and bluff such that the actual reality is lost sight of and missions compromised?

On a fundamental level this story explores whether human beings are clever enough to manage and control psi powers, or are we inherently too weak and undisciplined to prevent them from getting away from us? Psi powers are a bit like atomic weapons. When first introduced some people thought of them as merely slightly more-efficient weapons. In fact they were and are a game changer requiring new modes of diplomatic thought to prevent their use. Psi powers, should they ever become real, would be in the same category.

This is a very thought-provoking story, and very imaginative. Opens up a whole new can of worms I never thought about before.

Anton  – by J.M. Sinclair

Premise:

 Summoning a supernatural being into the circle has been described many times. This version is entirely from the being’s point of view.

Review:

Anton is the shadow of a dog dwelling in a land of shadows. Every now and then an aging sorcerer summons him and he experiences the doggy joy of being in the presence of his master. But lately he has begun to question his fate. Nothing to sniff or smell in the land of shadows. Why can’t he live all the time with his master? Why can’t he visit the world outside the circle? He senses it has much to offer. Certainly more than the land of shadows. Anton begins to question everything.

Not your standard demon-summoning or deal-with-the-devil story. It offers a fresh and original approach, a new take on the “reality” behind the concept of the what and why of the other realm outside our normal perceptions. I deem it amazingly sophisticated and rather brilliant in concept. And, at the same time, emotional and poignant. It took me by surprise. A very pleasant and unexpected surprise. I’m impressed.

Je Me Souviens – by Edward Willett

Premise:

The Earth has been destroyed, but does anybody care?

Review:

We know how fragile the world can be. Just ask the dinosaurs. For decades one of the arguments in favour of mankind developing space-faring technology is that we can spread ourselves among the stars and survive the destruction of our home world should that event occur. True enough, in theory. All those alive today will never know. Self-sufficient colonies on other planets or in space are several generations in the future. Certainly won’t happen in this century.

However, in this story we had colonies elsewhere in the Solar System when a giant asteroid struck the Earth and boiled the oceans and atmosphere away. Eventually we spread to the stars. And every now and then pilgrims arrive on Luna to visit the holy shrine dedicated to what the Earth used to be. Problem is, how long can a religion endure when the core of its belief system recedes into time? Is the man who has dedicated his life to maintaining the shrine a holy guardian of sacred rites, or just a janitor looking after a tourist attraction? Time heals all wounds. Yes, but it also destroys all faith and values, sooner or later. Time is the great destroyer.

There’s not a lot of action in this story. It’s more of a vignette. And yet I find it powerful. It even hints at a cosmic level of reality infinitely greater than the insignificance of humanity. You know, the sort of thing Lovecraft was always writing about. Why should anybody care about anything, when the universe itself cares about nothing? (I bet he was a huge hit at parties.)

This story captures all the elements of nostalgia,  regret, and loss that the imagination conjures up when contemplating the end of the world deemed so irrelevant that nobody wants to contemplate it any more. Never mind Lovecraft, this is the sort of thing Olof Stapledon predicted. Stirs my sense of wonder, but in a sad and mournful way. It moves me. Yep, powerful stuff.

The title is the official motto of Québec. Translates into “I remember.” Very appropriate to the story.

CONCLUSION:

If all the other stories in this anthology match the quality of the six I had time to read before my deadline closed in, this book is a must-have. I will add that it is nicely laid-out. I do believe it successfully serves its apparent purpose as a promotional advertisement for the services offered by Author’s Hand to prospective clients. However, that’s up to you if you wish to make inquiries.

All I know for certain is that I really enjoyed these six stories.

Check it out at:     <  Summer of Sci-Fi & Fantasy  >

 

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