Special Double Review
Jason McGregor & Geoff Houghton
“When Winter Comes” by Hayden Trenholm
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
The 107th number of On Spec brings us two familiar science fictional dystopias and five fantasies of much greater variety, ranging from superpowers to magic rites to battles with rogue familiars to the afterlife, the latter of which is the most appealing tale.
“When Winter Comes” by Hayden Trenholm
When the world Changed and some people got various powers, Parson became a sort of desire magnet. People will do anything that he “needs,” whether he “wants” them to or not, at the cost of his getting headaches which correlate to the extent of help but which all grow stronger over time. This causes him to flee from cities and most people but he can’t escape everyone. Sometimes people help him to the point of their deaths and one such incident forms a trigger to this loosely plotted examination of selfishness and altruism.
The comic-book speculative basis is familiar and contrived (“help/need/want” are used oddly) and the moralizing story isn’t especially exciting but it evokes its setting (“wild icy north”) and mood (“conflicted depression”) well.
“Dirty Wings” by Chelsea Vowel
The protagonist spends much of these four pages, which are not “speculative” as much as “surreal,” talking about shoes. The story includes many undefined regional words and untranslated non-English phrases and may be about pre-Europeans struggling with assimilation.
“The Fat Man” by Susan Forest
A virologist is living in a political and ecological dystopia when her daughter hatches a Christmas plan for mass murder for the greater good. Later, an event occurs which converts the mother’s passive ineffectuality into resolve.
This basic story has been done many times before. The opening scenes are ineffective if not superfluous. This is presented as a variant of the “trolley problem” but, leaving aside the decision, the insane daughter’s insistence is the only “proof” it’s even applicable. Their discussion about whether to do it has all the effect of their talking about the weather rather than mass murder and their morals void all other actions and efforts at emotion in the story.
“Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death” by Jordan Taylor
The opening is initially confusing, which is a sign of how unusual this tale is in some ways. It turns out Death is a girl. Who goes to school. And her friend’s recently been killed in a car crash but both have been a little unwilling to have her cross over. In the opening, they meet a recently deceased rat and the three spend the rest of the story hanging around and figuring things out.
The arc of this story is predictable in a key way, but details and certain movements are still surprising. It’s very funny at times, but is capable of moving into genuinely distraught territory. I thought the double-vision of what Death was going through subjectively and how this appeared to people observing her had aspects of both consonance and dissonance which worked well. There is a spot or two where it might be a little too YA for actual young people but I suspect this could appeal to young and old alike. It mostly depends on whether you want yet another posthumous/afterlife fantasy. As a fan of them, I was favorably disposed but I think this earns its recommendation.
“Ashwright” by Robert Luke Wilkins
Moran is an Ashwright and, for the first half of the story, we see him painstakingly perform what is, to us, an unexplained and therefore meaningless and uninteresting (but disgusting) ritual for “fifty gold” from the survivors of a town attacked by raiders. They cut the meat from their slain kin and leave him the semi-clean bones (no word what becomes of the offal). Then he goes to work. This is explained midway but there is a similarly unexplained intimation that he has his own problems which is not explained until the second half of the story (p.74, who is “Eloisa”? p.80, oh).
I assume readers are supposed to be fascinated by the ritual and eager to have the mysteries revealed and those who are might like the tale. But, since we have no reason to be eager to have the mysteries revealed, it will fall flat for others. It feels like a near-miss in the direction of a Beneath Ceaseless Skies story.
“Thank Yew Very Much” by Sally McBride
When Orlando, a giant cat and familiar of Gladys, goes rogue and does horrible things to her, her friend, Dr. Cobb, enlists the help of Pansy, a fierce fairy, and they, along with a tree, try to set things right.
This is supposed to be a humorous adventure and it mostly is but for the gratuitously detailed description of the outrageously disgusting damage to Gladys which basically ruined the rest of the story for me, making it all seem completely discordant. People not bothered by that element may enjoy this though I’d expect most people would be bothered.
“Side Effects May Include” by C. J. Lavigne
Martina’s living in a world of corporate domination, without privacy, being nickel-and-dimed to death if she so much as stops on the sidewalk for a moment (“loitering”). It’s worse for her because she has a latent genetic condition which normally disqualifies her from full-time employment. One day, however, a corporation decides that there are enough people suffering from the condition to make them worth taking advantage of.
We’ve all lived through this science fictional world innumerable times and, indeed, live through 90% or more of it every non-science-fictional day. That, in itself, might not be a problem for this story but it doesn’t really add any new idea or flavor to the general familiarity, the opening segment of Martina’s dystopian distress goes on too long, and Martina, whatever sympathy we may feel for her, is passive through it all. It’s not bad but not above average.
More of Jason McGregor‘s reviews can be found at Featured Futures.
“When Winter Comes” by Hayden Trenholm
Reviewed by Geoff Houghton
“When Winter Comes” by Heyden Trenholm, is set in the Canada of a near-future world. The reader will either love or hate the writing style. Prose tumbles forth in foaming three or four-line sentences that tease the brain with adjectives. If you are a reader who prefers tight and simple writing that cuts straight to the plot then this piece may not be for you.
The premise is that a very tiny fraction of the world population has developed functional psi-powers. The story protagonist, Parson, has the ability to directly change minds and behaviours. The major plot shortfall is that there is no discernable societal response to the appearance of this psi-phenomena. It is assumed that all the Governments across the world, from democracies to dictatorships, blithely shrug and ignore the possibility of harnessing these powers. Our protagonist is neither conscripted into Government service nor monitored, but is instead allowed to wander free to make his own moral choices about how to use his powers Where is the Psi-Corps?
Parson’s use of his psi-powers is also capricious and morally ambiguous in the extreme. The author seems to find it acceptable to override the will of others and to force them to act as Parsons commands, provided that that is for the greater good. Each reader must decide whether they agree.
“Dirty Wings” by Chelsea Vowel is a flow of consciousness from a Native American living on the edge of mainstream Canadian society. The author is plainly familiar with this Native culture and uses many native words, although their approximate meaning can usually be deduced from the context.
This is speculative fiction rather than SF. The writing style is idiosyncratic and there is no conventional plot. Instead the reader leaves behind common or garden Western World certainties and is drawn into an alternative way to view our Universe. If you believe that reality is reality is reality and what we see is what we get, then pass this story by. If you are less certain in your metaphysics, then you may wish to enter this alternative way of seeing the world through eyes not automatically attuned to Western Capitalist and Materialist values.
The world portrayed in “The Fat Man” by Susan Forest is another near future story set in Canada. It is a dystopia, but the very fact that a recognisable civilisation is still struggling makes it both realistic and poignant. There is a gritty realism that holds up a slightly distorted mirror to our own present-time world. Humanity is not going down in a spectacular Gotterdammerung. There is a slow and painful peeling back of layer after layer of civilised behaviour as Governments and individuals bicker over scarce resources.
The two principal protagonists are mother and daughter and most of the activity is seen through the mother’s eyes. It is made clear that humanity cannot survive, let alone recover, without fewer mouths to feed and fewer bodies to consume, but the question is who will leap from the lifeboat to save the others, or should someone be pushed?
The daughter is in no doubt that the billions of foreigners outside the borders must be the ones to pay that price and she is in a position to deliver a deadly weapon that her mother has engineered. The mother is initially unable to take the burden of such an immoral act onto her shoulders but the death of her daughter in the increasing civil unrest pushes her right to the edge where she must decide one way or the other. Would releasing a biological agent that would reduce the world population to manageable levels be an act for the greater good, an immoral act of mass-murder, or both?
The final segment when Miche (the Mother and Scientist) looks back upon the results of her choice adds an extra dimension of depth to an already fascinating story.
“Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death” by Jordan Taylor is pure fantasy at first sight, but it can also be read as a thoughtful metaphor for real life and the genuine mystery of death. It begins with the recently deceased young protagonist, Natalie, discovering that her best friend Megs is not only a young teenage student but Death personified. However, Death in this case this is not the powerful anthropomorphic force that is seen in Diskworld. Megs runs the Death franchise for a strictly limited geographic area (only Manhattan, the Outer Boroughs each having their own equally limited Death).
Natalie has to come to terms with her demise and the sudden end of all that she hoped to accomplish. The author manages to combine light-hearted moments of teenage angst with far more poignant moments – not least at the very end. The teenage Natalie, having died instantly and without even knowing that she had passed over into the ghostly realm, must somehow prepare herself to face a yet greater unknown than physical death itself.
“Ashwright” by Robert Luke Wilkins is set in a humans-only fantasy world where the dead can be made to rise in some form, but Wilkins avoids the overused zombie/evil-dead trope. Instead, the recently dead are raised to act as guards and protectors of their loved ones. The protagonist Moran is a practitioner of the art of raising the dead, and the majority of the text is a lovingly-detailed description of that process. The writing style is crisp and competent but the whole tale appears to progress at rather too leisurely a pace for a short story. In fact, the whole piece appears more like the first chapter of a longer and more complex work than a self-contained story.
“Thank Yew Very Much” by Sally McBride is a romping fantasy written with tongue firmly in cheek. It is set in a world where the magic has never gone away, even if the wizards complain that the new cell-phone tower interferes with their spells. The writing is fast-paced first-person, narrated by a wizard whose dilemma is that he must rescue a witch-friend who has been overwhelmed by her familiar. This fictional universe teeters cleverly on the edge of our familiar world, with little vignettes such as fairies using internet shopping. The writing rattles on at a breathless pace, carrying the reader with it, making you want to accept each new premise, no matter how outlandish. Good triumphs in the end, but those of a squeamish disposition should prepare themselves for a rather graphic description of the unfortunate witch who has fallen victim to her familiar.
“Side Effects May Include” by C. J. Lavigne is near-future SF set on an Earth that could still be our real future. The author has crafted a believable, but deeply unpleasant, world where commercialism, advertising and sponsorship are pushed to the Nth degree. The protagonist Martina is the victim of some unspecified genetic disorder that prevents her permanent employment in a world where healthcare is generally a compulsory charge against an employer. The frenetic pace of life in this fictional universe is drawn with fine and easily believable detail as she is harried from situation to situation in a world where temporary employment can be for minutes and financial ruin can be upon an individual in hours. This universe is all the more disturbing because it draws on and extends trends that a reader may already recognise in embryo in the real world around them.
The ending is superficially better for Martina than the situation that she was in at the start of this piece but her improved status is bought at the price of intentionally induced medical hazard. The concept that mortal danger could be deliberately induced in an employee by Big-Business just for financial profit is one of the more disturbing aspects of this fictional world. It should remind every reader that not all dystopias are inhabited by violent men on oversized quad-bikes. The real enemy may speak with an Ivy-League accent and wear a smartly tailored suit!
Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.