InterGalactic Medicine Show #62, April/May 2018

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Special Double Review


Victoria Silverwolf & Jeffrey Steven Abrams


InterGalactic Medicine Show #62, April/May 2018

“Failing Constructs” by Alter S. Reiss

“Pinedaughter’s Grove” by Ville Meriläinen
“The Robots Karamazov” by Marie Vibbert
“For a Rich Man to Enter” by Susan Forest
“The Stars beneath the Leaves” by Joshua Ogden
“Customer Service Support Ticket at All-American Wizardry Supply and Custom Floor Mat Emporium” by Alex Shvartsman

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

This issue of Orson Scott Card’s on-line magazine offers a nearly even balance of science fiction and fantasy. Appropriately, the two genres come together in the lead story.

“Failing Constructs” by Alter S. Reiss takes place in a technological setting, but one where magic also works. The protagonist investigates why a robot-like worker, created through a combination of assembly line and sorcery, exploded, killing or injuring several people. His discovery leads to change in his dystopian world. The narrative style is reminiscent of hardboiled detective fiction, with a cynical, hard-drinking hero waging a lonely war against political corruption. The story’s unusual background requires a great deal of exposition, which may try the reader’s patience.

In “Pinedaughter’s Grove” by Ville Meriläinen, the narrator accompanies a self-appointed demon hunter from England to Lapland. They hold a half-human, half-tree creature prisoner, in order to return her to her home and claim the magical treasure found there. Things quickly go wrong. This is an imaginative combination of folk tale and horror story, although there are no surprises in the fates of the human characters.

The narrator of “The Robots Karamazov” by Marie Vibbert is a sentient machine. It is the newest creation of a woman who has built several other robots. When the woman is murdered, it and two other robots face destruction. This story contains some intriguing speculation about human and machine intelligence, but is not very plausible. The connection with the classic novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky referenced in the title is tenuous.

“For a Rich Man to Enter” by Susan Forest takes place on Mercury. Many years before the story begins, humans fled a dying Earth to establish a barely surviving colony. After a war with Earth, in which both sides took many prisoners, the colonists won their independence. A delegation from Earth offers to return some of these prisoners, and to supply vitally needed resources, if the colony will allow refugees from Earth to live on Mercury. The protagonist must find a solution to a problem that offers no easy answers. The plot is compelling, but the contrast between the selfless, compassionate Mercurians and the greedy Earthlings is heavy-handed.

In “The Stars beneath the Leaves” by Joshua Ogden, an Earth facing total annihilation sends a robot probe into space. It has the ability to view events in the past, using this power to observe the history of a human colony world. The unhappy inhabitants of this planet spend all their waking hours raking the leaves that fall from gigantic trees, in order to find the fruit that is their only source of food. One boy finds the single spot in his world where he can see the stars through the dense forest canopy. None of this is plausible as serious speculation, but many readers will appreciate the story as a sad fable about humanity’s hopes and failures.

The magazine ends with “Customer Service Support Ticket at All-American Wizardry Supply and Custom Floor Mat Emporium” by Alex Shvartsman. As the title suggests, this very short story is a comedy about a woman who has trouble with the magical items purchased from a supernatural vendor. Those who have not read similar stories may find it mildly amusing.

Victoria Silverwolf recommends listening to the audio version of the last story while reading it.


InterGalactic Medicine Show #62, April/May 2018

“Failing Constructs” by Alter S. Reiss

“Pinedaughter’s Grove” by Ville Meriläinen
“The Robots Karamazov” by Marie Vibbert
“For a Rich Man to Enter” by Susan Forest
“The Stars beneath the Leaves” by Joshua Ogden
“Customer Service Support Ticket at All-American Wizardry Supply and Custom Floor Mat Emporium” by Alex Shvartsman

Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams

The first piece, “Failing Constructs” by Alter S. Reiss, left me staring in wonder. The tale is about Vozsi, a hardnosed agent assigned to investigate the cause of a devastating modern-day explosion. Unwilling to sign off on a politically motivated explanation, he strikes out on his own to find answers. What differentiates this tale from a typical gumshoe detective story is that Magic, in one form or another, plays a role in just about everything. Sorcerers abound, occupying positions from lowly assembly line workers up through executives in the Technology Ministry.

Set in a world of rampant corruption and political confrontations, in just a few well-crafted opening lines, Reiss creates an atmosphere reminiscent of Blade Runner. Like Decker in that iconic story, Vozsi’s actions are driven by dark events in his past. With an expert ability to navigate the system, Vozsi ultimately proves to be much more capable than the middle-level investigator he appears to be.

If the story has a fault, it might be in the heavy handed way Reiss attacks industrial corruption, although for me, he was preaching to the choir. This is a well-crafted and truly memorable story.

Pinedaughter’s Grove” by Ville Meriläinen is a tale about the interactions between humans and tree-people. The lilting writing style is perfectly matched for the Arctic Norway setting where the story takes place.

The main character, Constance, is an unwilling member of a group that has captured the Tree Father’s daughter. During the long journey back to the Pinedaughter’s grove, Constance befriends the captive, much to the annoyance of the Vicar, a ruthless man who sees nothing but riches from a soon to be obtained ransom.

One of the most engaging scenes occurs after the party inadvertently slays and eats a reindeer, a beast that happened to be “Precious” to the Pinedaughter. The ensuing retaliatory attack, with its army of rotting skinned dead creatures was a chilling piece of well-written horror.

Following that gruesome scene, the plot calms considerably. While the inclusion of Norwegian lore is interesting, at least for me, it took away from some well-established pacing.

The true strength of this story is the carefully built relationship between Constance and the Pinedaughter. We can all learn from what they discover; that by ignoring outward appearances, truly wonderful relationships can be forged.

At 6300 words, “The Pinedaughter’s Grove” is perhaps a little longer than it might be, but it’s well worth the effort.

The Robots Karamazov by Marie Vibbert

“Humans invented logic, but I think they operate without it.” Spoken by Irv, a recently repaired robot, this line perfectly summarizes a darkly fun story.

Irv is a member of a robot series that is showing an annoying tendency, a wish for freedom. He is countered by the main character, Alana, a robot who seems almost dog-like in behavior, seeking nothing more than praise from her creator, Freida.

Freida returns home, stabbed and ultimately bleeding to death. When her robots are arrested for her murder, only then do we learn how much of a creator’s personality goes into the mind of an AI.

While messages of logic, fairness, and justice are clear throughout the story, Vibbert handles them subtly, and like all good SF, shows our own strengths and weaknesses through her proxy characters.

For a Rich Man to Enter” by Susan Forest

Like the “Pinedaughter’s Grove,” this story explores the relationship between differing communities forced to confront one another. In this 8600 word piece, a small group of escapees from Earth’s war seek refuge in Mercury’s tiny colony. It’s a thinly veiled analogy to America’s current immigrant problems with a striking difference: the Mercurians are able to come up with a viable solution.

Even their settlement name, Mosaic, hints at diverse thinking. Ethical and moral arguments abound, touching on points like fairness, fear of becoming overrun by refugees, and sovereignty, but at its heart, this is a story about a mother/daughter relationship. Forest does a marvelous job with Olivia, daughter of the colony’s leader. While her age is never mentioned, she exhibits the attributes of a precocious young woman: smarts, competence, and little patience. Her mother, Mandira, while equally competent, is a more cautious decision maker. The pursuit of a solution by both drives the story forward to its ultimately satisfying conclusion.

While characters are the strength of this story, wonderfully detailed descriptions of the hellish Mercurian environment work well to create the harsh setting.

Forest isn’t afraid to explore some controversial solutions to overpopulation and other social injustices. Be prepared for statements like, “Ideas are contagious. Personal happiness over societal health is seductive,” and “POWs have proved they’re too cowardly to fight to the end, and therefore, they are no longer soldiers.” Hmm, sound familiar?

The Stars beneath the Leaves,” by Joshua Ogden, is a dystopian tale about humanity’s colonization of a planet after the sun has swallowed Earth.

Their newly chosen home, which they name Grove, is entirely tree-covered. While the trees produce an edible fruit, they also drop excessive quantities of leaves. So much so that the inhabitants must devote their entire lives raking them from their only food source.

Ogden does a wonderful job portraying this alien environment, lush and green on one hand, but stifling and imprisoning on the other. For me, the setting was the driver of the story, unfortunately to the detriment of character development.

Everyone on Grove works to the point of exhaustion, irritable, never questioning their way of life. Only three year-old Nobi sees the possibilities outside their self-imposed prison. He has found what appears to be the only hole in Grove’s arbored ceiling, and marvels at the stars beyond.

The story jumps, to me a little confusingly, between Nobi’s growing discontent, and the views of an ancient Earth-built robot, created by scientists before the planet’s destruction. The robot has access to all human history and is tasked with finding a descendant worthy of the knowledge.

From here, the story launches into a discussion on the death of human inquisitiveness. While interesting, Nobi’s and the robot’s views are largely expository, which, at least for me, was pace disrupting.

As the tale concludes, Nobi’s actions bring the story back to life. While some might find the ending less than satisfying, it was all too believable, and worked for me.

Customer Service Support Ticket at All-American Wizardry Supply and Custom Floor Mat Emporium” by Alex Shvartsman

I’m generally turned off by cutesy titles like this, or stories that are simply pseudo correspondences between clients and businesses. Having said that, I loved this flash piece about a customer whose acquisition of a magical gazebo sets off an ever-escalating series of required purchases.

I should note that being Jewish certainly helps in understanding Shvartsman’s humorous subtleties, and the ending requires some understanding of Jewish traditions.

I didn’t learn any great universal truths from this story, but it’s so well written and paced that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. And the ending is a gem.