Neo-opsis #18–December 2009

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alt“Breath and Tide” by Jennifer Greylyn
“Too Human” by Kirk Winning
“Self” by Conrad Jaye
“The Poet” by Dan Asad
“Jerry” by Karl Bunker
“A Day in the Life” by Jennifer Lott
“No Walls” by Scott Overton
“A Trip to the Northern Elves” by Pippa Wysong

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

Most Canadian SF (and fantasy) magazines (and all are fanzines or semi-prozines by definition) don’t get much circulation outside Canada, and that’s a shame. (I also feel that way about most SF magazines in the English language worldwide, but that’s a rant for another day.) Some high-quality English genre fiction is written in Canada (because I usually only read English Canadian SF, or French in translation—so this is not a slam against non-English SF and fantasy in this country… it just means I’m intellectually lazy.)  Though the magazine states it is a quarterly, the last couple of years have seen only three issues a year.

The reason that Canadian SF/fantasy (and indeed, British, Australian, and other English-language genre fiction) is in some cases better than American genre fiction is that the cultures are different. Even though the language is ostensibly the same, there’s a cultural gap that Americans can’t be aware of, no matter how bright they are, because they’re swimming in their own culture, and can’t escape their own cultural assumptions (unless, like me, they live for a long time in another country). And that’s a good thing, because all cultural assumptions need to be questioned on occasion, or life, and the fiction that expresses it, gets a sameness about it, even genre fiction.

Karl Johanson is the editor; Stephanie the assistant editor and art director. They have a stable of proofreaders (see note), and the reviews are done by Karl, Stephanie, and Doctor Robert Runté of the University of Lethbridge (and John Herbert, and Virginia O’Dine, who aren’t in this issue). There’s also an editorial and a science column in each issue, as well as descriptions of the various cons they (Karl & Stephanie) have attended. But on to the fiction:

“Breath and Tide” by Jennifer Greylyn is about a man fighting the sea; the sea took something of the man’s and he wants it back. Although the story is pretty well written (except for some fairly purple prose), it doesn’t really work for me, because “the sea” is used, not as a metaphor, but as if it were an actual, living, thinking creature. If you can accept that premise, even for the short term of this story, then it works all right, though I’d want to know how one man, with a stick and some pebbles, could defy the whole sea long enough to get what he wants.

“Too Human” by Kirk Winning is about a Construct, a Control, and a galactic war that’s about to hit Earth. The Construct has been guiding Earth towards first, intelligence, and then, spacefaring; his people desperately need allies against the Others, who are displacing all intelligent life. But to do so, the Construct needs to blend in; he visits Earth for a period every twenty thousand years or so to give an evolutionary nudge. (The last time he visited he was a Neanderthal; his nudge was about binding rocks to sticks to make a better weapon.)

But because humanity has changed a lot in the last nineteen thousand years, he needs not only to look human, but be human, so the Construct this time has a human body and brain as well as his usual “black box” control on the inside (it will be clearer when you read the story). In order to make the next evolutionary step, the human race needs to stop the “feedback loop” that’s causing global warming and possibly the eventual extinction of life on the planet, but also to become truly spacefaring so they are ready for the advanced weaponry that will enable them to help fight the Others.

It’s a well-told story; maybe I liked it mostly because it offers some solutions to the problems that are plaguing humankind now and for the forseeable future, and not because it’s a great story, but that doesn’t weaken the fact that I liked it. There’s a nice little twist at the end, too.

“Self” by Conrad Jaye is not a good story. It begins, like so many genre stories before it, with a first-person character awakening in a void; although the author attempts to hide the fact that it’s a computer from the reader, it doesn’t work—most SF readers have seen this before, and we can guess that the protagonist is a computer and the “parasite” within it is a human. The storyline is simple: the protagonist finds out there’s a missile (a Mark X, thirty times as powerful as the Mark IX) headed for it; the Mark X is full of “semi unstable radioactive material” and the parasite is trying to release an IRC before the missile hits. The Mark X is following  “residual thermo radiation” given off by its “pre-designated target” (and steering by releasing “small amounts of highly pressurized gas in most cases Helium”) and will search for its “greatest source” before allowing the payload to become “fully unstable” and detonate in either a shaped or radial explosion of thirty gigatons.

The IRC referred to is an Infrared Countermeasure designed to jam missiles using infrared tracking sensors. The whole story is full of pseudo-scientific gibberish. The referred-to missile can make high-g turns (in space) and, unless the whole battle takes place on the dark side of the Earth, an infrared tracking device would probably send such a missile careening off to the sun, which emits a hell of a lot more infrared than any spaceship and would probably throw any such tracking device for a loop. Also, what the hell is “semi unstable” (sic) radioactive material? Does the author know that an atomic explosion results from bringing a number of specifically shaped pieces of, for example, plutonium together at which point they go from stable (although radioactive) to extremely unstable?

The story is bunk, and here’s my note to the Proof Readers (sic) and the editor. There is no such word as “its’”—there are only “its” and “it’s”—and the possessive does not take an apostrophe! Also, “proofreader” is one word in every version of English I know of, and “yea” is pronounced “yay” and not “yeah,” even though it does mean “yes”… I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that this story was bad both structurally, story-wise, and in editing.

“The Poet” by Dan Asad doesn’t belong in a magazine whose full title is “Neo-opsis, Science Fiction Magazine” at all. It’s a weird little two-pager about, apparently, a stay-at-home husband who writes poetry about war, death and bad things—and it’s not clear whether he actually gets them published or writes them for an audience of one. Although competently written, there is absolutely nothing SFnal about this piece. I’ve gone over and over it, and can’t find any genre element to it. Am I missing something?

“Jerry” by Karl Bunker is, in my opinion, simply the best piece in the magazine, and redeems the half-baked portions of it. (I could be wrong, but I think the title is a nod to Heinlein’s “Jerry Was a Man.”) I’m going to be watching for Bunker’s name in the future, because this one worked really well for me.

Earth has been conquered, and the Spikes have taken seventeen million slaves as tribute. (Too bad about  Florida and England and Taiwan, and the Big Winter… a nickel-iron asteroid makes a great spitball to throw at a planet. Maybe we should’ve surrendered earlier.) Good news for you slaves, though: you only need to serve ten years (although “insufficient performance” adds time to your sentence). On this particular higher-gravity planet, the Earth guys have to chop down Crown Trees that are about forty meters (roughly a hundred and twenty feet) tall and drag them through the forest to a landing zone where they’re picked up. The Spikes don’t allow the clearing of trails, and the tractor that’s been breaking down a lot has finally been replaced—by Jerry.

Jerry doesn’t talk, so Matthews names him (after an old folk song about a mule, he says); Jerry is about 3 meters tall and looks like a pile of rocks. But boy, can he drag logs. So the quota for Crown trees gets upped. And upped again. What follows when Jerry gets sick comprises the core of the story and makes it really effective. I don’t want to say too much and spoil it for you. But I think you’ll really like it.

“A Day in the Life” by Jennifer Lott was not really SF (unless you consider it took place in a parallel universe), but more a fantasy. And a bit of a shaggy dog story, really. A minor piece—but nothing really bad about it. Unless you count the spelling of “Elvin” instead of “Elven.” I’d give it a “passable” because of the humor, although it was quite predictable.

“No Walls” by Scott Overton is, in my opinion, the second-best story in this issue—which is kind of weird, because usually wish-fulfillment stories aren’t that great. In this case, the wish-fulfillment is the ability to walk through walls; others (well, at least mine) include flying, super-strength, etc. The unnamed protagonist of this story gains it through mysterious means, and it doesn’t exactly make his year, if you know what I mean.

Like he says, is walking through walls good for anything except larceny? (He answers himself, and the answer is, “yes, voyeurism as well”!) After the usual excursion into the women’s shower room and the local bank vault, he discovers that maybe others have uses for his talent when he can’t think of any. I thought the ending was a bit facile, but it worked. As with all wish-fulfillment stories, I found myself thinking that I could have done a better job than he. You probably will too, but it’s a well-written story and I think you’ll like it.

“A Trip to the Northern Elves” by Pippa Wysong fooled me. I’m one of those people (if I haven’t already made it clear) who doesn’t lump SF and fantasy all under the rubric of SF; I take care to separate them. And when I saw the title and read the first paragraph or two of this story, I thought, “Oh, dang. Karl’s really losing it when he puts a story about elves in Neo-opsis.”

Well, the story is for sure about elves, but after you’ve read it you’ll agree that it falls quite nicely under the SF mantle. I can’t say too much about it, other than it involves time travel. And maybe it is a little bit clumsy at points, but overall, it’s well written.

Meela follows the trader elf she’s apprenticed to, Lorell, on his annual trip to the Northern Elves to pick up more magic stuff and “pel” and elf-bread and the like. He’s never actually acknowledged her as his apprentice, so she sneaked around and followed him on the sly. What she finds surprised me, and showed that every once in a while, someone can take all the old fantasy tropes and turn them on their ears. Pointy ones, in this case.

Overall, I liked this issue of Neo-opsis. I usually like the stories in the magazine, on balance, although a couple of these particular ones didn’t sit right with me—and I always enjoy the editorials and science bits. If you’re looking for a semi-prozine that’s just a little bit different from the usual, you could do worse. The magazine’s website is here.

Note to editor: if you have to put “The End” after the story, I suggest the story is not well enough written for the reader to tell it’s over. I suggest you drop this amateurish habit as soon as possible.