“Parsley, Pennyroyal, Paracetamol” by J. L. George
Reviewed by Geoff Houghton
The first piece of new fiction in Constellary Tales #3 is “Parsley, Pennyroyal, Paracetamol” by J. L. George. This short fantasy is set in a rural community on a roughly contemporaneous Earth.
It is the story of the initial meeting and subsequent interactions between an unnamed young woman and a fairy-tale creature whose precise antecedents are only vaguely explained. Our protagonist appears to lack either caution or common sense. She becomes attracted to and besotted by the beauty of this mystical creature with little thought of consequence. When her next period fails to arrive, she plans to use the first two drugs named in the title as abortifacients, with vodka and paracetamol as the final option to end her own life. These are very high risk and inappropriate choices and the fact that all turns out well in the end cannot offset her foolishness. The writing is competent and sharp but this reviewer is left feeling very uncomfortable about the proposed use of highly dangerous herbs and medicines in such an entirely inappropriate manner.
The second offering is “Under the Hat” by Forrest Brazeal. This SF story is set in a near-future USA and the SF premise is that computer artificial intelligence has developed sufficiently that even national politics is affected. For the first time ever, the two competing candidates for the presidency of the USA are not human at all. Instead, the candidates are AI emulations of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
The human protagonist is an actor reputed to be the finest Lincoln impersonator in the country. He is hired to train one of the AIs in Lincoln’s speech patterns, mannerisms and behaviour pattern. The Lincoln emulation successfully sweeps to power, but there are unexpected consequences.
The AI has been programmed with the whole story of Lincoln’s life, including his death at Ford’s Theatre. It has become so human-like in its behaviour that it becomes fearful of actors as a result. It uses its executive powers to close down all federal support of the Arts. The piece ends with the re-enactor who trained it adopting the persona of John Wilkes Booth and contacting the opposition party to offer his services to them.
The third offering is “Roads that Ain’t” by Buzz Dixon. This sympathetically crafted story is set in contemporary America. The narrator tells us about his cousin Benson and a dilemma that is all but unique to the United States of America amongst the countries of the developed world.
Benson is a perfectly normal young man except that he possesses one eldritch ability. He can shift into alternative realities to find and drive on roads that are not present in our baseline universe. The cousins only use this incredible skill for the most mundane purposes until Benson’s mother develops cancer and the family are informed that the cost of successful treatment will be more than their entire net worth. Benson converts what assets he does have into portable silver and sets off with his terminally ill mother on a search for a road that leads to an alternative reality with a more sympathetic healthcare system.
The last story is “Diminuendo in Three Letters” by D. J.Cockburn. This is a gentle, slow-paced and quite poignant piece. It is set in an unspecified country (although probably European) in the very near future. The first-person narrator is a retired biochemist. We discover that he spent his entire working life in searching for a usable memory enhancing drug, but only ever managed to find one that did the opposite. Gradually, the reader is led to the tragic explanation for the narrator’s lonely state and his apparent lack of recognition of many familiar things around him.
Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.