Tales of the Unanticipated, April 2000 – April 2001

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"Kameradin" by Manfred Gabriel
"The Worm OreBoreUS" by Kelly David McCullough
"Wallpaper Tours From Mars" by Martha A. Hood
"Rules of the Game" by R. Neube
"Depth of Field" by Stephen Dedman
"The Stress Box" by Judy Klass
"The Touch of Plastic" by Douglas M. Stokes
"Origin Story" by Eleanor Arnason
"These Guys Really Suck" by Fred Schepartz
"Ocean Shadows" by Sandra Rector and P.M.F. Johnson
"Into the Lion’s Den" by Robert H. Beer
"The Return of Dr. Schlock" by William Laughlin
"The Price" by Naomi Kritzer
"Lighthouse Moths" by Steven E. Burt

Tales of the Unanticipated is produced by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, with Eric Heideman serving as editor-in-chief. It’s a lovely physical production, large sized, perfect bound, high-quality paper. The cover this issue, by Judith Huey, is very nice. The magazine appears once or twice a year, and this issue, at least, is quite large, with 14 stories, nearly 80,000 words of fiction, plus a dozen or so poems, and a vigorous letter column. This current issue has a theme: Ghosts and Machines, and for the most part the stories fit the theme, although given the prominence of machines in SF, and for that matter of ghosts in Fantasy, that’s not all that surprising. (In a couple of cases, the two elements of the theme are indeed nicely combined.)

But how is the fiction? Pretty good. At the high end, I suppose, for small press efforts, with only a couple of weak stories, and several quite interesting stories. But no stories that hit on all cylinders: no real special stories.

This issue opens with Manfred Gabriel‘s first sale, "Kameradin". An orphan boy in post-WWII Germany is egged on by his friends to do some risky, foolish, things. At the same time, he experiences memories of his father, an SS member, during the war. This is a fine atmospheric character piece, with a pointed theme about World War II and the real people, on both sides, who were affected. Kelly David McCullough‘s "The Worm OreBoreUS" is an overlong story leading to a cute, but hardly significant, final image. It’s rather implausible premise is a race to the middle of the Atlantic by two tunneling machines, operated by physically enhanced men. The story is OK, but I think it would have been better at half the length.

Martha A. Hood‘s "Wallpaper Tours From Mars" features some very unusual Martians. The story itself can’t seem to decide whether to be fun arch comedy (the Martians come to Earth because they admire our Multi-Level Marketing, in part), or a moving tale of the last days of a different and striking species. Still, the central ideas here are pretty neat, and the story is worth reading. I’ve seen a couple of rather nice, funny, stories by R. Neube in Asimov’s. He weighs in here with "Rules of the Game". Once again the central idea is pretty nice: human mercenaries in a prison camp on an alien planet. The protagonist is happy enough just to sit the war out and wait for a trip home, playing chess with an alien "guard". But a couple of hotheads have different ideas. I felt that the story’s plot was a bit contrived, and the characters didn’t really come to life. The ending is rather spooky, though.

Stephen Dedman is a pretty good, fairly new, Australian writer. His entry is "Depth of Field", a reprint from the Australian magazine Altair. It’s a light-hearted take on cult director Ed Wood, famous as one of the worst directors of all time. Dedman imagines a committee of SF writers (and directors and actors, etc.) appointed in the ’50s to investigate UFO sightings. Of course, Ed Wood is a member, and one day he gets to investigate a UFO that might be real. Pretty decent, light-hearted, fun. Judy Klass contributes "The Stress Box", a "five minutes into the future" story with a believable and scary premise. Companies are already stepping up surveillance of employees: how about a box on your desk making sure your stress levels aren’t too high? Think that’d help your stress levels? Mine neither. Solid, scary extrapolation, and worthwhile for that, but the story as story doesn’t do much beyond present the basic idea.

"The Touch of Plastic" by Douglas M. Stokes is another scary story, though with a more satirical edge. His protagonist is the father of a young girl, and one day he notices that his daughter’s new doll has some, er, rather special features. This is a pretty effective brief story. Eleanor Arnason is one of my favorite contemporary SF writers. Many of her stories feature an alien species called the Hwarhath. "Origin Story" is a creation myth, or origin story, of one small group of Hwarhath. (One of the notable features of Arnason’s Hwarhath stories is that she manages to create an alien planet with a broad range of cultures.) I thought this was a nice snippet, but it’s just that, and I’m not sure how well it works standing alone, as opposed to being seen as part of a large tapestry of Hwarhath pieces.

Fred Schepartz‘s "These Guys Really Suck" works out a simple, silly, idea: vampires on a Jerry Springer-like show. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from that description, and well enough done. Funny stuff, nothing overly special. "Ocean Shadows" by Sandra Rector and P.M.F. Johnson is one of the ghost stories: an aging woman in an old house on the southeastern U. S. coast encounters some mysterious children. They force her to learn an aspect of her family’s history in Civil War times that she had guessed at but never fully known. Again, decent middle range work.

"Into the Lion’s Den" by Robert H. Beer deals with a variation of the idea used by Mike Resnick in his famous Kirinyaga stories. In this case, the Masai people are trying to restore their traditional culture "in place", in Africa. But modern technology still comes into play, particularly in providing a substitute for the traditional coming of age rite for young men: killing a lion. Matthew is a young man ready to come of age himself, and his brother-in-law, the apprentice to the tribe’s shaman, leads him on a long walk to Nairobi, the City of the Dead, for his trial. On the way, Matthew learns much about the real history of the Masai, and comes to a realization about his possible place in the tribe’s rebirth. I thought the central notions of this story were striking and clever, but the execution was a bit stilted. It also shares a problem that Resnick tackled head on in the Kirinyaga stories: to restore an ancient culture completely tends to mean keeping people ignorant of all modern knowledge. Matthew is privileged to learn much of this knowledge, but I got no sense that all the tribe shared that privilege (women in particular). Still, it’s an interesting, if not quite successful, effort. William Laughlin‘s "The Return of Dr. Schlock", on the other hand, struck me as mainly labored. The general idea is that a contemporary horror film director tracks down the title character, who during the director’s boyhood hosted one of those cheesy TV horror film series, until a scandal forced him out of his job and into an asylum. The director’s meeting with Dr. Schlock gives Schlock a chance to escape the asylum and try to restore his name. I never really got interested in the characters, and the plot was just too simple.

In "The Price" by Naomi Kritzer, we encounter an old Dutch woman in an old-folks’ home, which she thinks is a prison. Because, after all, she is a murderer. Eventually we learn that she is a murderer, and why. Again, sort of an "eh" story. The target was a bit too easy. Finally, Steven E. Burt‘s "Lighthouse Moths" is a true ghost story. A man comes back to the Maine town where his daughter drowned, convinced of the truth of stories he’s heard about the "moths" that can on rare occasions be seen flitting around the lighthouse. This is another example of a well-done story that just didn’t have the surprise, or the special prose, or the truly memorable character, that makes a story live in your memory, but which on the other hand has nothing particularly wrong with it.

Tales of the Unanticipated is a very elegant production, and the contents are of sound but not outstanding quality. I do have a rather odd, nit-picky, complaint. The Table of Contents is a bit front-loaded: the stories at the beginning are by and large better than those at the end. I left the magazine feeling disappointed, but in writing this review, I realized that overall there was some pretty good stuff here. Just my quirkiness, I guess, but I’d have put these fourteen pieces in a different order. All that said, the magazine is worth a look, I’d say.

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the sf and fantasy genres. He’s been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13.) Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. His home page is at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton