Helix #1

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“A Feast of Cousins” by Beth Bernobich
“City of Chimeras” by Richard Bowes
“The Sum of Things” by Robert M. Brown
“After the Protocols” by Adam-Troy Castro
“Mahmoud’s Wives” by Janis Ian
“Going to See the Beast” by William Sanders
“The Lordly Loofah” by Bud Webster

Helix SF
, a new spec fiction quarterly ezine, accepts stories by invitation only. Let’s take a look at their handpicked selection.

The cousins are more than kissing in Beth Bernobich’s “A Feast of Cousins.” At her family’s Christmas Eve dinner, Maura discovers that Cousin Tess has dumped her in favor of Cousin Lucia. But new relationships are never far away in this rather close-knit clan, as Maura finds out through the agency of an anonymous gift.

Bernobich writes a sensuous and engaging tale. “A Feast of Cousins” works well as a love story, not so well as speculative fiction. The speculative elements felt tired and brought to mind a scene from Jane Fonda’s cult classic, Barbarella. I doubt the author was aiming for that association, but unfortunately, that’s what came to me during this story’s climax.

Overloaded with paragraphs of storytelling, buoyed by precious little showing, Richard Bowes’ “City of Chimeras” strains to weave a complex world in which a post-apocalyptic New York exists side by side with Elfland. Prince Calithurn and his lover, the half-Fey, half-mortal Jackie Boy, left Elfland to live among the mortals of Gotham, many of whom are genetically modified chimeras. Calithurn’s castle is under attack from both Fey and mortal enemies, and the onslaught is serious enough that the Prince and Jackie Boy must return to Elfland.

The surfeit of telling makes for a tedious and sometimes bewildering reading experience. The ending has merit, but if I had not been reading “City of Chimeras” for this review, I’d never have made it that far.

There’s no shortage of action in Robert M. Brown’s “The Sum of Things,” an alternate history in which American mercenary fighter pilots help defend Greece from Mussolini’s invading forces. In this version of World War II, America has not yet entered the fray. The Italians are technically neutral, but are keeping Germany well supplied with oil from their fields in Libya. In the course of two days, Ed Sebastiani, a Kittyhawk fighter pilot, learns that he and the other mercs are doing considerably more than protecting the Greeks.

Brown writes air battle sequences with a confident, lean style, but everything works here—not just the descriptions of combat, but the dialog, the plotting, and the understated denouement. Folks who dislike war stories may find little to enjoy here, but for the rest of us, “The Sum of Things” is pure entertainment.

In a far future reminiscent of Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, a twilight of falling and fallen empires, two interrogators are sent out into the universe to search the many inhabited worlds for the root cause of humanity’s downward spiral. The interrogators, Barque and Forrell, take with them their only clue: a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Such is the setup for “After the Protocols,” by Adam-Troy Castro, a moralistic but nonetheless enjoyable cautionary tale about prejudice. Yes, it’s an odd thing, but heavy-handed preaching can be fun. Take, for example, the opening scene in which a thinly veiled President of the United States (or a descendent of that luminary) explains to our protagonists why the Empire’s future is hopeless, and then gives them their marching orders:

“Every single aspect of our civilization, from the moral to the economic, is in a state of accelerating free fall. We’re dying. Do you understand me? We’re dying. And it’s not our own fault; it has never been our own fault. We need to seek out and punish the cause of all our troubles at their source.”

The story’s fixation on Jews may seem a bit off, considering the present day obsession with worshipers of another creed, but it takes little effort to generalize Castro’s message to political scapegoating in general. Besides, with a few thousand years of history backing him up, Castro may be right about the ultimate target of humanity’s collective hatred.

Like the preceding story, Janis Ian’s “Mahmoud’s Wives” is heavy-handed and moralistic. Unfortunately, it lacks the sense of humor of Castro’s story, something which made “After the Protocols” not only tolerable but enjoyable. Tone makes all the difference.

Religious doctrinal misogyny and its corollary, the oppression of women, are the targets of Ian’s tale. With names like “Mahmoud” and “Fatimah” (Mahmoud’s first wife of three), Ian leaves little doubt which religion falls under her crosshairs. She begins with an effective hook:

“When the rains came, Mahmoud packed his wives into a large canister and loaded them onto the truck.”

But the tale peters out after that. Much of this story is told from Mahmoud’s point of view, so we receive ample exposure to his abysmal view of women and his opinions on how the world ought to run. There’s little suspense as to the body modification which makes a canister necessary for Mahmoud’s wives, so the only remaining question is Mahmoud’s comeuppance. Though richly deserved, it was also predictable.

I can’t write a better summary of William Sanders’s “Going to See the Beast” than the one-liner on Helix’s homepage: “How me and Joe Bob got Left Behind and wound up meeting the Antichrist his own self.” I’m delighted to report that “Going to See the Beast” is every bit as good as that one-liner would suggest. Part of the fun lies in identifying the various supporting characters. Who is Bobby Joe’s Boss Lady? Who are the Antichrist and his minions, including the Whore of Babylon? But this story derives its humor from many other sources—Bobby Joe’s voice, the Boss Lady’s sexual predilections, and her antagonism towards the Whore of Babylon, to name only a few. Sanders has enough ideas floating around to fill a much larger work.

And that’s my sole criticism of “Going to See the Beast.” I wanted it to be much longer. The denouement felt rushed and (after such a terrific setup) anticlimactic. Sanders could and should expand this piece into a novella or novel; it’s high time we had a worthy satire to go up against the horror of the “Left Behind” series.

Bud Webster’s “The Lordly Loofah” is a short, lighthearted piece of faux journalism about the production of Bill O’Reilly’s favorite body-scrubbing product. Loofahs, we learn, are manufactured from the mineral loofite. Mexican hairless dogs coated with dirty motor oil are sent into the mine to “sound” for loofite. If they come back scrubbed pink and clean, the miners know they’ve been successful.

Thus, “The Lordly Loofah” is part of a humorous tradition including such other luminaries as Monty Python’s Llama sketch (“The llama is a quadruped which lives in the big rivers like the Amazon. It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming.”) Such pieces are what they are: entertaining, quirky, and light as chiffon.