Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 18

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

JUPITER XVII: CALLIRRHOE

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

The latest issue of one of the UK’s most dependable small press magazines has an evocative cover by Jesse Speak and contains seven stories, plus a review of The Science of Doctor Who by Paul Parsons.

Opener A Mother’s Story by John Rogers is the longest of what’s on offer and also, for my money, the best. The plot is a familiar one, that of the slave/servant girl who comes to civilise her master. In this case the master is the alien Brix and the slave a never named red haired human girl he buys at the market. Over the course of nine pages and many years she demonstrates to Brix a better (i.e. more profitable) way of doing business, showing the advantages of educating his charges, providing healthcare and hiring out labour rather than selling slaves, along the way becoming like a mother to them. All of this is by the way of setting us up for the rather obvious revelation of who the girl really is and her acceptance of a ‘higher’ destiny. It all sounds slightly silly and overly sentimental, and I suppose it is, but Rogers writes with such a wealth of detail, bringing the characters and institutions to life, that it’s impossible not to get engrossed and root for the slave girl.

V. K Valev’s Good Old Days is almost as good and comes with a fascinating concept. Laura, the wife of an astrophysicist, has a rare medical condition which means that strong emotions cause her amnesia. One of her husband’s university colleagues is developing a revolutionary new technique that may help, but there are side effects which mean that not only can she subsequently remember all the details of her own life but also the history of the universe, setting the scene for a denouement with echoes of the film Altered States. Valev makes a good attempt at rendering this concept credible, with the categories of real and imaginary time (real time is the events in a film, while imaginary time is the backdrop against which they take place), and Laura being able to remember imaginary time, but I’m not quite sure that I buy into it though I’m prepared to suspend disbelief up to a point, that point being where, from simply remembering the origin of the universe she is able to describe it in such detail her husband and his team can recreate the moment in a lab simulation. It might have convinced more if, instead of imaginary time, the idea of the collective consciousness had been broached. No matter. The characters are well drawn, with Laura’s plight eliciting sympathy, and the story holds the interest right up to the bittersweet ending, with its hint that there are more important things than knowledge and research, even for a dedicated scientist.

Great Hairy Boats by Gustavo Bondoni didn’t do anything for me at all. Poor old Hans gets caught outside the village stockade when Vikings attack, and because he is trying so hard to get in they assume that he is one of them. Hans is taken onboard ship and kept as a sort of pet/mascot while they sail for parts unknown. The god Thor just happens to be aboard and Hans’ curiosity about this gets him into deep doodoo. Basically this is like one of those long, convoluted jokes that runs on and on before delivering a cringe inducing punchline. Hans isn’t especially likable or sympathetic, while the way in which he goes from coward to brave enough to approach Thor (something the Vikings themselves are reluctant to do) is a plot convenience too far. There’s some mildly amusing dialogue, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere and ends on a damp squib note that I’m in three minds about–is it meant to illustrate that the pagan gods are much more harsh on their worshippers, or to hint that either Thor is secretly Jesus, or that all gods are the same? I found it hard to care. And what made the story even more irritating were the typos, most significantly a disregard for the correct way of closing dialogue, so that we get sentences like–‘I am Thor.’ He said proudly.

From Brian Koscienski and Chris Pisano we get another take on the Frankenstein archetype in I am God, God I am Not. My problem with this story is that as far as the plot goes it’s highly suggestive of George R. R. Martin’s classic Sandkings, with miniature robytes in place of the eponymous alien pets in Martin’s story, but otherwise very similar, right down to the four tribes in a vast aquarium warring for the favour of their ‘God’ and eventually escaping. It’s hard to believe that anyone who is aware of the much superior Martin story won’t draw highly unflattering comparisons when reading this. I found it impossible to get past such comparisons and reach any evaluation of the story’s merits per se.

Kevin Kelliher’s The Space Sneakers is another comedic story, with the advantage of actually being funny and having a killer punchline to deliver as two Chinese astronauts on a visit to the International Space Station vie to steal the last shoe to set foot on the Moon. It is, of course, all rather silly, but impossible not to smile as Majors Han and Zhao try to outwit each other, with schemes that would put the Keystone Kops to shame.

From Lawrence R. Dagstine we get another high concept story in A Soul to the Stars. Scientists have learned how to ‘piggyback’ rockets into outer space by using the energy of souls departing from this sphere and, if I’m reading the story correctly, they then return with a little help from incoming souls. It’s a fascinating idea and Dagstine brings it to life, with a convincing use of neo-technical jargon (so much so that I got confused in several places) to gloss over what is almost certainly a highly improbable scientific development. More importantly, he never loses sight of the human side of things, the way in which the astronauts interface with this technology. What comes over very strongly is the sheer joy and spirituality of spaceflight. My only complaint is that I wish the author had gone a bit further into the moral and emotional implications of such a method. It seems to me that there’s a lot more potential in this idea than the story allows.

Last but not least we get Mother Tongue by Carmelo Rafala which is set on a distant world where indigenous species are slowly being wiped out by human colonists and the only resistance is an eco-terrorist movement. Our protagonist, the artist turned tracker Rohan, finds himself in a ‘situation’ with political overtones, and also learns somewhat more about what is going on than he bargained for. It’s a clever story, one that addresses serious themes and makes a virtue out of what is not being said, with some fully rounded characters, convincingly alien setting, and an engaging action set piece. For Rohan only personal redemption seems possible, taking up his paintbrush once again, the purity of art offered in contrast to the duplicity that lies at the heart of the military industrial complex, though Rafala is more ambivalent than that statement might seem to allow, with a sense that perhaps the artist can become too inward looking.

Jupiter edited by Ian Redman, A5 56pp, £2.75 or 4/£10.00

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