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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, #24

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Image“Wash and Wear” by Brian Tillotson
“Poet Warrior” by Paul Woodlin
“The Beast’s Apprentice” by Marissa Lingen
“Bones” by Stephanie Campisi
“Spotting Starwhales” by André Oosterman
“The Cat Story” by Anna Tambour
“Tarans” by Simon Brown
“The Coming of the Space Crawl” by S. Hutson Blount
“Harry, the Wife, and Mrs. Robson, Hell’s Temptress from Number Six” by Steven Pirie
“The Second-Hand Bookshop of Al Hazred” by Chuck McKenzie
“Impersonal” by Katherine Woodbury

This issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine includes a wide variety of offerings, from shorts that are little more than jokes to light-hearted sagas.  Some are more successful than others, but the quality of the writing is fairly strong throughout—clear, accessible, and occasionally startling; it’s a pity that typos abound.  In any case, there’s something for everyone here, even if it takes a little digging to find it.

“Wash and Wear” by Brian Tillotson is not much longer than its review.  It is basically a joke about a misunderstanding that occurs following an alien abduction.  It is an appetizer, no shorter or longer than it needs to be, and the punchline is funny, or at least cute.

Paul Woodlin’s story “Poet Warrior” reads like a Japanese folk tale, formal and reflective, delivered in a literary but accessible style.  A great lord is about to lead an attack on a fortress commanded by a rebel.  The protagonist, however, is much more interested in spiritual development than warfare, and he is constantly in search of a lost romantic verse said to trigger enlightenment in all who hear it.  His key to discovering the verse may be the rebel’s wife, a woman he himself had fallen in love with many decades before.

This beautiful and poignant story seems out of place among all the lighthearted offerings in this issue.  It is not a humorous or lively tale; in fact, it’s a bit of a downer.  Readers who approach it with the right expectations, though, will not be disappointed.  The story’s prose is worth relishing and its wisdom worth contemplation.

“The Beast’s Apprentice” by Marissa Lingen is a cerebral fantasy set in a fictional pre-industrial world.  Joshua, the bookworm son of a wealthy businessman, relates how his father is forced to surrender him to the household of a female “Beast.”  While certainly beastly in appearance, she is a refined gentlewoman in need of an apprentice to aid her in gardening and more intellectual pursuits.  After spending many days reading in her library and many evenings dining in her company, Joshua develops fond feelings for his mentor.  When she learns of this, she puts his ingenuity and resourcefulness to the greatest test yet.

This story is well-written and easy to read, and the author succeeds in crafting intriguing and sympathetic characters (particularly the Beast).  It’s always a relief to see a fantasy protagonist pitted against his own limitations and feelings instead of a wicked or deceitful antagonist.  That being said, the dramatic tension is diluted by the story’s length, and a general lack of urgency pervades it.  The action is rather muted, as Joshua spends the story solving puzzles instead of, say, slaying foes, and the puzzles aren’t the sort that a reader can play along with.  Also, the ending feels a bit abrupt, despite the long journey it takes to get there.  That being said, this is vivid and imaginative fantasy, and it offers emotional as well as intellectual rewards.

In Stephanie Campisi’s “Bones,” a couple of Australian students find a skeleton on the toilet of the apartment they’ve just rented.  Through their raw and off-color “Ocker” dialogue, we watch as the skeleton slowly “recomposes” over a period of time.  This selection is worth reading just for fun, and it contains several hilarious one-liners, though some readers may need an Australian dictionary (or better yet, an Australian) to get some of the jokes.  Unfortunately, the novelty of the premise wears off well before the story is over.  It takes off strong, but then it stalls, then coasts down slowly to an abrupt ending that’s sure to leave many readers scratching their heads.

André Oosterman tells an interesting deep space adventure in his short story "Spotting Starwhales." In it, Delany is a Surfer who has just been decommissioned by the Cartel, which means his spacefaring days are over. Surfers are starpilots trained to navigate funnel-ships near the fringes of the Nebula. Since decommissioned Surfers are rare, he is instantly recruited by a crippled billionaire named Kurt Krämer to pilot him to the stars. Of course the elderly billionaire is hiding his true motive, telling Delany that it’s a simple scientific mission to study star formations in situ, when, as it turns out, they are going in quest of starwhales, mythical beings that sail the depths of space. Krämer, who turns out to be a former Surfer himself, claims he’s seen the legendary starwhales, and he’s going to prove that they do in fact exist.

I found the writing here quite good and the future depicted admirably. Oosterman gives every impression that he’s telling a hard SF story, when in actuality it’s more of a space adventure. Still, the science did seem plausible enough to me. There is no mad Captain Ahab in this tale, though the reference to Moby-Dick is one any reader would easily make—if only for the whale reference and the vagaries of the universe that are so akin to the turbulent seas in eras past. I found this a gripping enough tale, but toward the end I was wondering where it was all going, wondering if disappointment wasn’t in the offing. I wasn’t disappointed, and I’m happy to report that this story is one whose payoff is in the very last line. But if you think I’m going to tell you...

“The Cat Story” by Anna Tambour is a fanciful little tale, not about a cat, but a cat story.  The main character, an editor who lives like a stereotypical bachelor, spends an evening reviewing a novel submission, unaware that a cat story has sneaked into his apartment.  No dialogue disturbs its mischievous hunt.

The prose in this story lumbers along with the dense grace of a fat tabby, generous with alliteration and clever but hard-to-parse descriptors like “the 4 am four-car-pileup sound” (of a garbage truck compactor).  It’s possible that a reader may confuse the novel with the cat story at first, so be forewarned.  Otherwise, the story offers some very vivid personification; the belch of a tub drain, for instance, is “replete with contentment, ebullient with thanks.”  Even though the writing style would be too heavy for a longer piece, this story is a quick, enjoyable read, even—or especially—for people who don’t much like cats.

In “Tarans” by Simon Brown, a 19th-century paranormal investigator receives a vision warning him about an incursion of the spirit world into the mortal realm.  The resulting investigation takes him and his African-born companion to a dismal and xenophobic English village, where some sinister vestiges of feudalism remain.  To discover why they’re even there, the researchers must uncover the village’s most haunting secret.

Though this story is clearly written and quite readable, its narrative is a patchwork of niggling annoyances sewn into rather bland cloth.  It gets off to a slow start, and it maintains a strolling pace for some time, with characterization building through chatty dialogue that is sometimes downright dull.  There is a stretch of genuine suspense in the middle where the investigators solve the story’s key mystery, but from there the plot decelerates toward a fairly predictable ending.  The omniscient storytelling is generally well-handled and transparent, but it is occasionally disorienting, especially near the beginning of the piece.

Astute readers may also question this story’s internal logic.  The premise requires that a controversial tenet of Christian dogma be true, even though it seems illogical and even cruel from an objective perspective.  This is difficult to accept from a modern work of fiction, even if it’s set in the 19th century.  It makes one wonder about God’s motivations—and his pettiness—in the universe the author portrays.  To the story’s credit, one of the main characters skirts the boundary of this difficult question in the final scene.

The action picks up with “The Coming of the Space Crawl” by S. Hutson Blount.  Two officers in Earth’s Space Patrol, accompanied by a green cadet, are sent to investigate possible enemy alien activity on a trans-Plutonian planetoid.  They discover alien life, all right—but not exactly the kind they were expecting.

This piece is an odd hybrid of campy sci-fi adventure and classic “hard” sci-fi, as if it doesn’t know which kind of story it wants to be.  Occasionally, an italicized “voiceover” booms in to laud the deeds of the Space Patrol with a plethora of exclamation points.  The story may be a satire of (or tribute to) an old radio show, TV program, or print fiction series, but it’s hard to pinpoint which, since the “Space Patrol” appellation is quite a popular one.

Readers who miss the reference, whatever it is, are unfortunately likely to be disappointed, since the story stands rather shakily on its own.  It gets off to a slow start with confusing exposition and contrived dialogue, and it takes several pages to really figure out what the story is about.  The omniscient point-of-view distances the reader from the characters, and it’s not until the climax, when the narrative delves deeper into their heads, that they feel genuinely real.  The setting description, while not sparse, sometimes just misses the mark, making the alien landscape and ship environment a bit tough to visualize completely.  All that aside, though, the alien life forms are described with intriguing and imaginative detail, adding a tinge of mystery to the eventually fast-paced adventure.

Next up is “Harry, the Wife, and Mrs. Robson, Hell’s Temptress from Number Six” by Steven Pirie.  In this surreal urban fantasy, a deeply unhappy man becomes obsessed with his beautiful and seductive next-door neighbor.  It hardly matters that Mrs. Robson is a “witch from Hell” who maintains a backyard garden inhabited by shadowy monsters.  When his shrewish wife leaves to visit a friend for a while, Harry yields to temptation.  His indiscretion leads him to the very lip of Hell, and to escape doom, he must solve the temptress’s riddle—only to discover that he’s always known the answer.

This story has a strong theme, and its lesson is a laudable one, likely to keep the reader thinking long after the ending.  However, the moral of the story is not as effectively delivered as it could be.  The protagonist is generally unlikable, and not all readers will sympathize with him—or care whether he ends up in Hell.  The plot doesn’t always develop in a way that makes sense in a modern setting, as Harry often fails to pursue courses of action that should be obvious; the reader must accept that Harry is either very stupid or very depressed, or that once he succumbs to the temptress the world he moves through is no longer quite real.  The protagonist receives a key revelation in a dream—a somewhat hackneyed development—though one could argue that he is being guided toward his own salvation.

“The Second-Hand Bookshop of Al Hazred” by Chuck McKenzie is a short spoof featuring Lovecraftian characters and mythology.  It casts the fictional madman Abdul Alhazred, author of The Necronomicon, in the unlikely role of used-bookstore proprietor.  When a customer comes in hoping to sell some old books, Al is unimpressed—until he reaches the bottom of the pile.

Fans of Lovecraftian literature may find this story delightful, and the protagonist certainly is endearingly grumpy.  Other readers, however, will only be confused, confronted with a barrage of in-jokes and unpronounceable references.  The punchline, though comprehensible even to those who think that “Cthulhu” is onomatopoeia for a sneeze, is too weak to evoke more than a smirk.

The issue concludes with “Impersonal,” a spunky and imaginative story by Katherine Woodbury.  It is narrated by an employee who is assigned a “personality split” in order to better cope with the dissolution of her company.  She acquires two new personalities, both different from the original, one for each of the new daughter companies; one works in the morning, the other in the afternoon, utilizing the same office space.  The two new personalities immediately dislike each other, despite the fact that they can never come into direct contact.  Soon, each makes plans to murder the other.

The premise is absurd, of course, both in psychological and common-sense terms.  Of course, like many of ASIM’s offerings, this one is not meant to be taken too seriously, and readers who can suspend their disbelief will find themselves in an engaging story.  The narrative is briskly-paced with plenty of dialogue.  The protagonist speaks from her “root personality,” describing the actions of the work personalities in the third-person, an approach which keeps matters from getting too confusing for readers.  That being said, it does take some effort to keep track over the overall plot arc, and it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to all the trees.  You may have to read the story twice to fully understand the climactic plot twist.

(Reviewed by Brit Marschalk except for “Spotting Starwhales” by André Oosterman which was reviewed by Marshall Payne.)