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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Sci Phi Journal #8, November/December 2015

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Sci Phi Journal #8, November/December 2015

The Trade’s On” by J’nae Rae Spano

Be Careful What You wish For” by L. P. Melling
reBirth” by Katherine Gripp
The Pondering Pacifist” by John Kaniecki
Walk” by Gunnar De Winter
They Shall Be As Gods” by John Rovito

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

Rose is in a very uncomfortable situation in J’nae Rae Spano’s “The Trade’s On.” To keep her family and the whole colony alive, she’s been traded in marriage to one of the Blessed’s Elders, who in turn will provide the colonists with the food they need to survive. The problem is, no one asked Rose about this beforehand. Why would they, when the fate of many rests on the inconvenience of one?

The plot in “The Trade’s On” zips by in the blink of an eye, which unfortunately leaves the reader stumbling with the information that has been thrown at them. This speedy narrative delivery has the additional consequence of denying readers a truly in depth look at the characters, their history, world, and interpersonal relationships. Because of this, Rose comes across as more petulant than sympathetic, and the conclusion seems rushed and hackneyed where it could have been moving had the story devoted more words to the relationships between characters.

L. P. Melling’s “Be Careful What You Wish For” sends a message of hope and horror through a temporal black hole, to the Earth of the past. It begs the undisclosed reader to abandon thoughts of the coming malignant future, to instead cherish the present and to leave the planet as soon as possible. The future is without hope, but the present can always be saved.

Be Careful What You Wish For” explores a pessimistic future in which the Earth has descended into a cacophony of terrible things. None of humanity’s combined knowledge has been able to save our future race and in fact, much of our tinkering has resulted in a future more horrible than anyone could have ever imagined. The frightening dystopian setting has great potential, however “Be Careful What You Wish For” is unfortunately entirely that: a setting without much real plot. Coupled with stilted prose and overabundance of Bad Things to come, this flash fiction piece gives readers a voice preaching the end of times on a street corner, rather than any narrative or character arc to get behind.

Alex Ryder is on top of the world in “reBrith” by Katherine Gripp. He’s in the top income bracket, has had the benefit of the latest technological advancements since birth, and a job that guarantees he’ll remain at his current height in society, if not soar above it. Yes, life has been kind to Alex—that is until he accepts a strange video call from a woman he doesn’t know. Suddenly, all his remotely wired systems have failed, forcing him to revert entirely to his natural, analog existence. Unfortunately for Alex, there’s nothing he can do in his new, helpless state to prevent someone else from moving in and taking everything from him: his job, his wealth, even his own body.

reBirth” spends a lot of resources explaining the world. Because of this exposition-heavy narrative choice, the actual conflict of the story loses much of its strength. This is exacerbated by the lack of a character that the reader wants to succeed. From the beginning, Alex is the kind of man the reader instinctively wishes to see fall. He’s the arrogant, rude and thoughtless poster child of the top one percent. Conversely, Madge is the militant for-the-good-of-all-at-any-cost communist thief that western culture has been bred to revile. Yet neither can the reader feel full sympathy for the downtrodden of this future world as they are portrayed: subhuman, de-evolved by circumstance, and more animal than man. The overall impression is that a measure of sympathy is meant to be felt for all the characters, which puts the reader in an uncomfortable internal moral war that isn’t satisfactorily resolved by the end of the story.

In John Kaniecki’s “The Pondering Pacifist,” a secret organization of time travelers bent on taking over the universe sends its employees through the ages to share jail cells with history’s most influential people. The goal is to coax them into taking up the pacifist lifestyle and use their standing in society to affect change for good. But wouldn’t it be easier to just eradicate those who can't be convinced? Erase them from the time line and ensure that the world never has to deal with their evil? At times, being an absolute pacifist sure is hard.

In keeping with the title, “The Pondering Pacifist” ponders, but does little else. The conflict presented in the story is a backward-looking contemplation of moral ideals. Should the protagonist adhere to the teachings of his order, or break into violence, if it could produce a more positive result? The difficulty with this narrative choice is that the backstory exposition robs the reader of any dramatic tension. The way the protagonist describes his and by extension the decisions of his entire order, is without much emotion or internal conflict. It is a point-by-point reveal of information. The stiff, stilted voice employed by the first person narrator does nothing to help this. The story also focuses very narrowly on historical figures who have affected American history, despite a claim to universal influence throughout time and space. No mention is given to any historical figure, ancient or modern, who has not had influence in American history, to say nothing of the creative depths the story could have explored by adding a few non-Earth examples to this order’s temporal tinkering.

They are born in the North and march toward the South, never knowing why, or where they are going, or what they came from. They never question who they are, or the world around them. For most of them, all that matters is the path and the steady march south. But for one in “Walk” by Gunnar De Winter, the thought emerges that there has to be something more to life than the endless marching, something beyond the herd and those that die of exposure on the trail. But it can no more stop than any of the others, and when they reach the horrible end of their trek the question becomes an imperative—choose life or choose death?

For the most part, “Walk” is a long, existential ramble punctuated by brief moments of insight. Neither the unnamed, barely described creatures nor the shambling landscape are very engaging, and the repetitive marching mantra becomes irksome long before the halfway point. “Walk” also suffers from an incongruent voice. The stilted first person narration doesn’t fit with the character who has known nothing but a steady southward march since its birth. Finally, the ending falls short of its potential impact after the character completes a full circumnavigation of navel gazing, only to lack any sort of introspection when discovering the big reveal.

Athanasius IV has a plan in John Rovito’s “They Shall Be As Gods.” If the height of humanity is technology and humans have been made in God’s image, then it naturally follows that through technology humans shall become gods. To this end, Athanasius has gathered thousands of brilliant minds at the top of their field and hooked them all up to a giant neural network. All his advisors agree that this will create a combined processing power unrivaled in all of human history. They will become gods. But Athanasius isn’t without his detractors. In his quest for godhood it is possible that he has over stepped his—and humanity’s—bounds.

They Shall Be As Gods” takes a lot of interesting ideas and crams them into a box too small to contain them all. Attempts to characterize Athanasius are haphazard and come too late in the story to give the reader any sympathy for him. They become a distraction from the main feature of the story: the transhumanist element. However, this exists mostly in backstory and out of the moment exposition. The narrative makes a half-hearted attempt at hiding the predictable failure of the experiment, robbing the reader of any joy of discovery. Given room to expand and dig into the emotional heart and soul of the combination of theism and transhumanism, “They Shall Be As Gods” could be a thrilling if not moving story. In its present form however, it’s simply too shallow to touch more than the surface emotions of most readers.