OSC InterGalactic Medicine Show #33, March/April 2013

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OSC InterGalactic Medicine Show #33, April 2013


The Cartographer of Dreamland” by Robert J. Howe
The Other City” by J. S. Bangs
Small Creatures and Large” by Michael Haynes
Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma” by Alex Shvartsman
Thirteen Words” by J. Deery Wray

Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia

The Cartographer of Dreamland” by Robert J. Howe describes Jerry’s discovery of Dreamland and his subsequent escapes from a hard life of family abuse and bullying. Unlike typical portal fantasy, “The Cartographer of Dreamland” focuses on Jerry’s real life and the personal meaning that he attaches to Dreamland. Dreamland is a place where the most pressing mysteries amount to cataloging plants and avoiding shy predators akin to bears. Jerry never runs into anybody in Dreamland and it is implied that solitude is a set feature of the realm. It is a place of quietude, contemplation, and centering, a place to simply be by yourself.

Jerry’s transition into adulthood is one of healthy escapism. The story begins with another kid bullying Jerry, and points out the fact that adults are often oblivious or ineffectual at handling children. When his abusive parents do intervene, the resulting confrontation has mixed results. At the end of the day, every day, Jerry’s real problem is that he has no safe place to go in the real world, because home is not a safe place. Howe’s eerie betrayal of abusive family dynamics and bullying makes it easy to understand Jerry’s need for Dreamland. Dreamland provides a logical, necessary escape that allows Jerry to not only limit his exposure to violent, physical danger, but to take time to process these events and, simply, to be himself.

The action peters out gently because the true conflict of the piece revolves around Jerry’s survival and his blooming maturity. Howe’s beautiful prose will speak to anyone with an introverted bone in their body.

The Other City” by J. S. Bangs is a depressing post-apocalyptic short story told from the point of view of Jeska, a teenager who has just lost her newborn baby to the cannibalistic wild boys that plague the land outside the pure city. When Daynel shows up with a hungry, motherless infant, Jeska offers to nurse him and adopt the two into her roaming family.

The unpleasantness of the setup itself is not a problem, following the genre, but what turns me off is the plot’s descent into hopelessness. The only ray of sunshine is that Jeska enjoys Daynel’s company. Other than that, the characters’ mentality is that even a hopeless goal is better than nothing because their present situation is so deplorable. Unfortunately for me, all I can see is them dying shortly after the end of the story, and so it feels as if the author didn’t have the heart to break the news to the readers. A few extra sentences here and there might have developed Jeska and Daynel a little more and made the dark setting easier to take for an optimist like me.

Small Creatures and Large” by Michael Haynes follows Geetal as she sneaks off after Murzah to observe him practicing forbidden magic. When Murzah discovers Geetal, we get a chance to see them both as innocent, friendly young adults stuck in what appears to be a prison camp for the lower class. Then, Murzah’s secret is exposed to the head of the camp, Mother Sharna, and the two almost-friends are torn apart in more than just the physical sense. Geetal attempts to mend the relationship to what it could have been as the two work on an escape plan together.

This is a story of betrayal, but it is also a story of loss. In the very beginning we see a young woman only a few years older than Geetal who has lost her innocence to sexual predators, and soon Murzah loses his stolen privacy and both he and Geetal lose a measure of safety under the camp’s punitive rule. Most of all, Murzah and Geetal lose the possibility of a simple friendship. They cannot merely be young adults who share a secret, or an interest, or anything else, because their lives are controlled by others. Yet, despite this extreme outward pressure, we see that it is the choices the two do have that make or break their relationship.

I enjoyed the minimalistic descriptions and appropriate foreshadowing. We get a glimpse of the prison camp’s conditions and a closer look at Murzah’s magic, but the focus remains on Geetal and Murzah.

Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma” by Alex Shvartsman is a hilarious tale set in an ancient, family-run Chinese pawn shop that acquires and sells rare items, such as Cthulhu asleep in a pocket universe. Sylvia, the young woman next in line to take over the shop, must explain to her grandmother, Heide, what Cthulhu is and why this acquisition isn’t the biggest mistake of her upcoming career. Grandmother Heide is less worried about the destructive properties of Cthulhu and more concerned with the fact that everyone who seeks the idol seems to want him for free. When the interested buyers clash violently in the streets, Sylvia must use quick thinking not only to prevent a blood bath, but prove to her grandmother that she can make money off of even Cthulhu.

This is my favorite piece in this issue because it has wide appeal and clean plot, dialogue, and characterization. You don’t have to be a fan of Lovecraft to enjoy the Cthulhu jokes and everyone can laugh at the aliens who unwisely wish to release the demon into their seas to get rid of pesky sea serpents. Comedies are a rare sell for me but Alex Shvartsman has hit every funny bone without sacrificing the aspects that make a story.

Thirteen Words” by J. Deery Wray uses a classic SF premise to draw us into the mystery of Mr. Evans, a helpless patient who can only utter thirteen words. When nurse Sophia becomes Mr. Evans’s caretaker, she immediately sympathizes with his plight. Most of her other patients are cymbies, humans who have lost the will to live due to exposure to the cymbid seed that permeates the air of the entire planet after its accidental release from a science lab. The fact that Mr. Evans can still think and communicate at all drives Sophia to investigate his life in the hopes of decoding his thirteen words and, ultimately, communicating back.

The environmental suits and other details of day-to-day-life give the story a solidity that, along with the bits of history, complete its classic SF feel. What I enjoyed most was the way Sophia pieces together Mr. Evans’s mystery by actually going to his old residence and taking a close look at common things, such as his photographs of family members. The story mentions more than once that other people have tried to decode Mr. Evans’s thirteen words, but it becomes clear that none of them ever bothered to look at who he had been before his brain was damaged. Although a few moments in the story are predictable, I like the way Sophia cares just as much about Mr. Evans’s as she does the very important mystery that she unfolds. Add in a dash of bravery and foolishness and you’ll find yourself at an ending that’s equal parts tragedy and hope.

Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.