Neo-opsis #5

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"The Man from M.E.S.M.E.R." by Stephen Couch
"INSER" by David M. Kelley
"Golem" by Mark Budman
"A Traveling Companion" by Linda DeMeulmeester
"The Wind and the Sky" by Suzanne Church
"Nothing to Fear" by Nigel Read
"A Song for Morning" by Hayden Trenholm
In Stephen Couch‘s "The Man from M.E.S.M.E.R.", we take a visit to an alternate England where the British Empire has held the world in check through mind control. M.E.S.M.E.R. is a special branch of the police force that specializes in catching rogue mesmerists who use their powers for wrongdoing. When an evil mesmerist seeks to turn the entire world into mindless zombies, it’s up to this crack unit to stop him. This is a great little story. It’s humorous and pulpy, and has the feel of a continuing series, even though it isn’t. This hardworking story does a lot in a small space, and will hold up to successive re-readings.

"INSER" by David M. Kelley is a nice robot tale that gives a slight nod to Asimov. INSER is the last surviving member of a team sent to an asteroid to study black hole technology to use for space travel. He is also a robot and was head of security there. The story follows the lonely INSER as he moves about the now quiet complex, now filled with the mummified remains of the scientists, and makes clever use of flashbacks as the lonely robot remembers what life there was once like. Kelley has given INSER an incredible range of emotion for a security robot, whose flashbacks border on psychosis. He also has an attraction to one of the female scientists. The story then cuts to a trio of wisecracking marines who have been sent to find out what happened on the asteroid.

This is a nice story, but in the end it is a little unclear. I was never sure exactly what happened to the scientists, but felt that INSER had something to do with it. This was never fully explained, which detracts somewhat from the story. Kelley also goes to great pains to hide the fact that INSER is in fact a robot, but experienced readers will figure this out before too many pages have been turned. Still, this is a very good story that explores emotion and psychosis in a robot, in spite of the fact that we never learn what happened on that asteroid all those years ago.

Mark Budman‘s "Golem" revisits the famous legend of the golem of Prague. This certainly isn’t the first story to be written about golems, and it isn’t the first to be told from the golem’s point of view. But what makes this such a fine short story is the sinister aspect he gives the golem. I have always been fascinated by the golem legend, but newcomers to the story will have to do some research to really get this story. Fortunately, much can be found on the Internet. Budman is the editor of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review, and judging by this story, he really knows what it takes to make a well-crafted piece of flash fiction. "Golem" is my favorite story of the issue.

Linda DeMeulmeester‘s "A Traveling Companion" is one of the strangest stories in this issue. On an alien planet, a colony of humans is cared for by intelligent garments called Companions, which can morph much like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. The Companions take care of them throughout their lives, providing food, clothing, and shelter in what appears to be a very barren landscape. I like this story a lot, though it was never quite clear to me what these people were doing on a barren planet, and why they were waiting for other colonists to arrive. Still, the Companions were an intriguing concept I’d like to see more of.

In "The Wind and the Sky," Suzanne Church paints a moving story of an android on a space station orbiting a decimated Earth. His interest in the surviving members of humanity instead of his scientific studies gets our hero, Polnine, scheduled for a sinister-sounding software upgrade. Sneaking down to Earth, Polnine joins a tribe of humans and befriends a young woman named V’keso. V’keso becomes enamored with Polnine, and grows angry with him when he won’t lie with her to have offspring (she’ll never understand that he is an android and unequipped). She contracts a fever and quarantines herself in a remote cave, as is her people’s custom. Polnine risks deactivation by returning to the space station to save her, as well as to give her what she has been wanting throughout the story. This is a compassionate tale along the same lines as "INSER" in which artificial life is granted emotion. This wonderful android who cares about human life and culture reminded me of the moravecs in Dan Simmons’ novel Illium. If it is our destiny to be surpassed by our own creations and ultimately replaced, let it be by creations such as Polnine.

Nigel Read‘s "Nothing to Fear" is a clever little short-short in which a man uses some Matrix-style virtual reality to cure his fear of heights. But in the end, is he able to tell the simulation from reality? I won’t spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that Read has written a smart, witty yarn that, while somewhat lesser than the other stories assembled here, proves that it belongs in their company.

Hayden Trenholm‘s "A Song for Morning" is a wonderfully weird, far future (I hope) story about a non-humanoid alien named Tarstan, who is a member of a race of beings who can absorb the memories of their forefathers before they die. Beings that hold the memories of their entire race would be unstoppable, and thus it is for Trenholm’s Arakans. They have conquered the galaxy, and keep representatives from each fallen alien race in a zoo called the Institute for the Preservation of Aliens. One of these is a Jewish man named Jacob, who Tarstan has taken a special interest in. (Tarstan finds Jacob kneeling beside his recently deceased dog, for whom he sings a Kadesh, the song for morning of the title). When the conservative emperor decides that the conquered species must be terminated, Tarstan must decide between his Arakan upbringing and his attachment to the captured aliens.

I really liked this story. Trenholm’s vague description of Tarstan and his kind give just enough information for the imagination to run wild, and his concept of aliens that can chemically absorb each other’s memories is an intriguing one. His alien descriptions reminded me of the kind of stuff Harlan Ellison used to do. What’s more, he makes us care about Tarstan and really hate the emperor by having Tarstan care for the human being, Jacob. This is probably my second favorite story of the issue, after Mark Budman‘s "Golem." Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go reread this story.

All in all, Neo-Opsis is a great little magazine that should appeal to a broad range of tastes. The stock of serious fiction balanced with humorous nonfiction shows that the staff do not take themselves too seriously, but take the genre very seriously indeed. We’ve seen a lot of great SF come out of Canada in recent years, proving that if they ever decide to invade, we’re screwed.