"Relativity" by Brian Longbotham
"Asleep at Fortune’s Wheel" by Sonya Taaffe
"The Hole" by Gregory Douglas LeMieux
"The Riverrun Dummy" by Richard Thieme
"A Proper View of Death" by S.M. Cross
"Bataka and his Shadow" by Paul Bates
"John Glenn Station" by Frank Andreotti
What to say about the small-press print magazine, Zahir, edited by Sheryl Tempchin? According to their guidelines: "We are looking for well crafted speculative fiction—stories that challenge ordinary notions of reality, or that look at reality in new, imaginative ways." Likewise, all these stories do challenge ordinary notions of reality via their plots ("Asleep at Fortune’s Wheel" by Sonya Taaffe which intermingles dreams and reality, cutting away the strict borders between the two, certainly fits that definition). However, not once did I finish any of these stories and start to rethink the world around me or look at my surroundings with awe and wonder. So I must ask: Do these stories challenge reality?
The award-winning Dangerous Visions anthology comes to mind when I think of tales that challenge reality. Many of those works, such as "Faith of Our Fathers" by Philip K. Dick, changed the way I looked at my world and the people around me. I got the impression Zahir was aiming for the same kind of "risky" stories—the sort that haunt your dreams, but instead this magazine comes nowhere near the caliber of Dangerous Visions and presents a bunch of easily forgettable, "lukewarm" visions.
"Relativity" by Brian Longbotham follows a business man running on a track, mulling over his life, which somehow causes the watch his father gave him to go back in time and lets him relive his life backward until he reaches the point where he first received it. Obviously, the metaphor of the business man and the watch hearkens to an age-old theme of Science Fiction: don’t live your life by the watch. It uses some interesting experimental techniques in its presentation (the way the author depicts the protagonist running around a circular track, which doesn’t really work). The story is one of the few that manages to capture a human element toward the end.
"Asleep at Fortune’s Wheel" by Sonya Taaffe is a story about dreams bordering on reality and the thin line separating the two. It leans far too surreal for my tastes. The narrative floats away and loses my interest, which is a common problem with the majority of surreal stories.
"The Hole" by Gregory Douglas LeMieux is a story about a mysterious hole appearing in a young woman’s apartment. The mystery surrounding the hole’s origins and where it leads gives this story strong plot inertia, snagging your interest and transporting you all the way until the end. The Lovecraftian ending, however, abetted the story more than aided it. It would have been better to have kept the mystery of the hole as the focus. The last paragraph, also, tries to give the mysterious hole a deep "metaphorical" meaning, which feels tacked-on and less than poignant.
"The Riverrun Dummy" by Richard Thieme revolves around a future genetically modified version of humanity who has mastered the concept of space-time. The reader follows a teacher instructing his students about this society, meanwhile dealing with his own personal lust for one of them. In the end, it turns out he is just a pawn for society. Although the techno mumbo jumbo technically works, how long can you really engage in a story in which every other sentence reads: "Star systems can not exist outside of the subjective fields that construct them as systems and subjective fields never exist independently of the systems that inflect them." Also, the story seems to require the reader to have an intimate knowledge of Stephen Hawking’s theories, and to be up to date on the latest theories of space-time, to truly understand what you’re reading.
Probably the best story out of the bunch, "A Proper View of Death" by S.M. Cross follows a day in the life of Death and depicts his marriage with another deity. The relationships in this are well-developed. The details the author chooses sparkle. There was something very witty about this one that should bring a smile to any reader’s face!
"Bataka and his Shadow" by Paul Bates is a flash fiction work about one man on the verge of death, facing the truth of his god. This piece of flash adds nothing new to this age-old subject. The problem isn’t so much in the writer’s ability, but rather in the story’s general lack of originality and ambition.
"John Glenn Station" by Frank Andreotti stirs in a tablespoon of CSI and mixes it with a base of old burly detective stories and pulpy space station adventures. An exobiologist cop investigates mysterious deaths on a space station, which leads him smack in the middle of a drug ring and mutated amoebas. Although both plots are loosely tied together, they could’ve been connected better—maybe explain how the amoebas got on board in relation to the drug racket in the station?—however, the author never makes such connections, and it causes the plot to feel too loose for its own good.
Overall, none of these offerings really stood out as memorable, nor any as terrible. Not a three-course meal you’ll remember for years to come, nor one that will cause you to run to the bathroom sick. Just a bunch of stories that you nosh on with little joy. That’s probably the best way to describe this issue of Zahir. Not something that will change your reality (like its guidelines aspire to), but rather something that will feel like just another typical day in the neighborhood.