Talebones, Issue #32, Spring 2006

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“Hail, Conductor” by Charles Coleman Finlay
“Anima, Animus” by Jason Stoddard
“The Burden of Leadership” by Timons Esaias
“What It Means To Be Human” by Steve Mohan, Jr.
“Clockwork” by D.E. Wasden
“Stringing Tomorrow” by Devon Monk
“Phoenix Wave” by Richard R. Harris
“The Speed of Dark” by Catherine MacLeod
“Recognition” by Joanne Steinwachs

Issue #32 of Talebones introduces a new format.  Gone is the review section, indeed almost anything that isn’t fiction.  The editors have pared back everything else and focused on the stories themselves.  The result is quite impressive, a hefty 108-page magazine cram-packed with fiction and some poetry (including a quirky offering by Greg Beatty).  For those needing their review fix, these have been moved to the Talebones website.  The pages are a yellowish tinge now (in an effort to keep costs down), but this reviewer found it oddly soothing on the eyes, so don’t let that stop you from picking up this value-packed issue!
“Hail, Conductor” by Charles Coleman Finlay is a great story to kick off this issue, with a brutal dystopian setting.  Finlay’s protagonist is a little girl lost, an innocent in a world of war and horror.  He portrays her brilliantly, and generates true sympathy right from word one.  Her juvenile point of view is maintained with consistency, as the setting shifts from her war-torn neighbourhood to a slipstream underworld rife with strangeness.

Violently dissected with a huge wedge of slipstream, the story gets confusing at this point, but it is rescued by the judicious use of allegory.  This section is effective at highlighting the girl’s innocence as she traverses the pseudo-Limbo, looking for her parents or anyone who can protect and comfort her.

This ends up being a really good story with a nicely-rounded feel to it.  The setting alone is enough of a hook but Finlay’s protagonist is a nice touch and complements the nastiness of his world perfectly.

“Anima, Animus” by Jason Stoddard is an interesting premise, a slightly different spin on cyberspace and the theory of stored personalities.  The protagonist, long since disembodied, becomes corporealised in his search for a lost love.  He comes to Anima, a quasi-religious site.  Sometimes, the stored personalities are reborn into flesh, and he waits with the other hopefuls for the almost impossible to happen.

Stoddard paints his own spin on the long hackneyed dichotomy of man vs virtual-man, with some success.  The concept of Anima and the backstory is a little hard to pick up at first, but all told this story is quite competent.  There is a very cool concept of air-borne computer virus spores, able to attack these virtual minds while they are flesh-bound.

“The Burden of Leadership” by Timons Esaias is a quirky short piece, a darkly humorous look at combat morale.  The premise is simple; the more an officer gives, the better his soldiers will fight for him.  The sacrifices of the top brass are inventive to say the least; they are beaten, whipped, dragged behind wagons, their genitals crushed, choked by weights, and their fingers broken.  It is the duty of soldiers to make life a living hell for officers, granted, yet this is insubordination taken to the next level.

The only real twist to this bizarre vignette is the unwanted battlefield promotion of the protagonist (who’d want to be an officer in this army?)  The ending was a little predictable but the concept interesting enough.  Not too bad.

“What It Means To Be Human” by Steve Mohan, Jr. has a great Phillip K Dick feel about it, a dystopian future where the concept of racial purity has been compounded with that of genetic purity a la Gattaca.  The protagonist is a guardian, a sort of space-Gestapo from totalitarian Earth.  The political trouble-shooter finds himself in a moral quandary when he forms a relationship with a Jewish girl on his ship.  When she is murdered on shore leave, his dogged investigations turn up more than he’d care to know…

Mohan Jr. presents a great little SF detective tale in this short piece; while his guardian is no Elijah Baley, he is a believable character given the setting.  The ending strikes a true chord, the unanticipated final action totally in keeping with what the character would really do.

“Clockwork” by D.E. Wasden is a nicely written piece, a look at the worship of the mechanical, the canon of the cog as it were.  As far as shorts go, this is a totally contained work and not a word is wasted.  An acolyte rises through the ranks of the nameless church, enchanted by the constant click-click-click that is the sound of God.  Wandering where he should not, dare he learn the true nature of god?

Wasden maintains an excellent narrative rhythm, with concise and smooth-flowing prose.  The story itself is nothing original, but while this idea has been covered in different places “Clockwork” is pleasant enough reading.

“Stringing Tomorrow” by Devon Monk is a great blend of the speculative and the contemporary, when a heavily modified human goes out to fix the futuristic version of a broken power line.  With his relationship on the line [groan] he sets out into dangerous conditions, risking his safety to keep interplanetary communication at an optimum level.  Is it worth it?  Could he change the past, the bio-mods that have prevented fatherhood?  Very good and well written, this is a fine display of narrative tension.  Read this!

“Phoenix Wave” by Richard R. Harris is strange in principle, and a little difficult to swallow.  People with terminal illnesses are statistically involved in plane accidents for no apparent reason.  So every now and then they just launch one full of dying people to get them out of the way.  The pseudo-science of this concept is shaky at best, and suspension of disbelief fares little better than the plane does.

Harris can be forgiven for writing this Final Destination pastiche, as it is otherwise a technically fine piece of writing which unfortunately surrounds a poor central idea.

Catherine MacLeod’s “The Speed of Dark” is the tale of a disturbed murderess living online, somewhat of a shut-in.  She is corresponding with a sadist, her unseen cyber-flame who knows how to push her buttons.  The poetic quality of their disturbing correspondence is contrasted quite cleverly with the harridan shriek of her arguing neighbours.

“The Speed of Dark” is unfortunately a somewhat pointless exercise in erotic suspense, and quite linear and predictable in terms of pure story.  Apart from the above-mentioned contrast, there is little to lift this story from the generic dark erotica bucket.  The central character does not generate a lot of sympathy, and quite frankly it’s hard to care about what she’s doing, let alone wonder why nothing is happening.

“Recognition” by Joanne Steinwachs is the stand-out best story of this issue of Talebones.  The setting is brilliant, and Steinwachs presents an evocative world where tech-hunting killer nasties have driven humanity back into the Stone Age.  Gatherings of more than a couple of people provoke an alien attack, and so families spread themselves out over large areas in order to survive.

Mariah is the matriarch of one such extended clan, the guardian of her deaf grandson.  Both are liabilities in this bleak future, where any moment could bring death from the sky.  Yet surrounded by fear and uncertainty, the pair bring art and beauty into their shattered world.  The aliens take notice…

Steinwachs should be congratulated for such an innovative setting, and her characters are a joy to read.  She should seriously be nominated for an award or something for “Recognition.” This is top shelf stuff.