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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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    Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:19am

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, by Robert J. Santa

originally published 11/13/2006
I am a regular here at the SFReader.com forums and have been for years. It is my number one procrastination site when I'm at the keyboard. Any time I'm having a bit of a drought in the creativity department, I'll head over there for inspiration. Sometimes it's just goofing off. But many times, I'll find inspiration in the thoughts or works of others. 

Which found me responding to a call by Jason Waltz, the fantasy acquisitions editor of Staffs & Starships Magazine. He posted a general request for assistance spreading the word about his fledgling magazine and getting it reviewed. I shot off my desire to do a review but didn't know how effective it would be since it's always posted on the very forum to which he was making the request. Still, Jason said he'd love for me to look at volume 1, issue 1, and managing editor James Boone Dryden sent me a copy. 

I was immediately struck by two things, the larger being the writers present in the table of contents. I've read much of their work in the past and felt on name recognition alone I was holding a powerful collection of both SF and fantasy. The other (though no less important) of the first impressions was the subtitle of Staffs and Starships: "Bringing tradition back to speculative fiction." 

That got me to thinking of traditional spec fic. What is that? I grew up on Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Fred Saberhagen and others dominating my science fiction landscape. J. R. R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Ray Bradbury led the fantasy pack. They'd all been around forever, as far as my literary world was concerned. This was my tradition. Is it the same tradition Staffs & Starships is talking about? 

Hell yes, it is. 

My early science fiction exposure was about ideas. Some of them were big ideas, like an artificial world shaped like a ring with a diameter of millions of miles, or a self-evolving race of machines bent on the destruction of all organic life. Others were smaller ideas, such as the loss of social interaction as robots dominate the menial tasks of the world. Big ideas are fun as thought exercises, but when it comes right down to it, it's the smaller ideas that thrilled me. How is John Q. Everyman going to deal with the issues on a human level? That, to me, is a story. 

Such is the smaller idea presented in "At War" by Karl El-Koura. Off on a long tour, Private Ritley ponders his almost-a-Dear-John-letter from his wife. His partner's been going missing for long stretches at night, and he confronts PFC Trebaire when they're alone on patrol. Faced with the prospect of disciplinary action, Trebaire reveals he's in possession of a personal teleportation device which he's been using to escape the hum drum life of soldiers guarding a bridge to nowhere. Ritley is faced with the possibility of court martial himself for not turning in Trebaire, which is further complicated when everyone else in the unit learns of the device and starts using it (despite the very real health risks of teleportation). Does Ritley fold and visit his wife to help her through his long absence? Does he turn in the squad? Do they turn on him, suspicious of his motives for not using the PTD? In a story that could just as easily be about a cell phone and not a teleporting belt, El-Koura creates the simple tale of mixed relationships that is exactly what storytelling is all about. This is a Bradbury-esque piece well worth the lead spot in a new publication. 

Hot on the heels of this down-to-Earth SF piece is Barbara E. Tarbox's "The Ken of Man." High priestess/sage/sorceress Valea meets with the King and his upstart son about a Roman invasion by the Ninth Legion, an impossibly overwhelming force. Asked to solve the problem with her magic, Valea feels the wrath of the king's son who would rather lead an ineffective force of farmer-militia against the greater number of professional soldiers. Again, this piece presents a conflict wrapped with the relationships of Valea and the King, his son, their own bitter rivalry and Valea's responsibility to the people of the land. What at first felt like something of a deus ex machina ending turned into a masterful focus on those relationships upon further consideration. Easily one of the best stories in collection. 

But wait, this isn't just a one-two punch. Katherine Shaw brings "Trompe L'Oeil," the second SF story about artist Rosemary and her not-up-to-date robot butler, Angelo. Having trouble capturing the light on a basket of apples, she frustratingly tells Angelo to destroy the painting followed by the off-hand remark, "I wish you'd paint the damn still life for me." You guessed it, morning brings a masterfully and uniquely-rendered painting which sells not for the six hundred dollars asked by Rosemary but the twenty-six thousand placed on by her manager. When she asks Angelo whether he minds that she took the credit for his work, he philosophically remarks, "The brushes did not ask for credit." This may be something of a standard for SF plots, but Shaw's delivery and ending make this back-to-back-to-back successes for Staffs & Starships. 

I don't get to read much, what with the kids constantly distracting me and all. Having now been in my favorite chair for three stories, I felt I was pushing the envelope and would soon hear the caterwauling of siblings behaving like siblings. But I couldn't stop and pressed on into another fantasy story: "Darkened" by Joanne Anderton. A little girl discovers the protagonist hiding in a cave on the beach. For the first few pages I'm not sure if Saira (a name she reveals to the girl reluctantly) is even human. Clearly she doesn't think of herself that way. Day after day the girl spends time with this mysterious recluse until the morning she does not come with a basket of food. Curiosity overcomes Saira who ventures from the comfort of her solitude to find little Jenn, and we readers get to learn of Saira's history and her place in the world. More brilliant writing held me captive throughout this piece, and while the ending gave me with the disquieting feeling either I missed something vital to the plot's resolution or the author left it out, there's no denying this is an excellent story. 

Enough already. The momentum of this collection built to the point that I had to put it down, not because I wanted to but because I knew that any interruption would destroy the lovely experience I'd had. After a few hours of time spent back in the real world, I returned to "The Oracle Unlocked" by Lindsey Duncan. Full disclosure number one: I'd previously read this piece for a themed anthology I was co-editing. It was a fairly specific theme for which this story did not perfectly fit, which in no way reflects upon the storytelling. This is a solid piece about a semi-mystical spy who invades a temple in order to damage or destroy the Great Oracle that has advised her country's enemies to the brink of political victory. Aoshain the spy encounters the Oracle, a construct that speaks the words of the god Eurinor after jumping over the typical spy hurdles of sneaking past guards and eventual discovery. While I did not personally select this story for my collection, I had no doubt it would find a home soon. Even though the piece takes a bit too long to get to the Oracle itself, Duncan's closure of the issue is enough to make you forget about any wandering. 

So far, Staffs & Starships is five for five, a remarkable achievement. I was wondering if any of these stories was going to miss the mark for me and came to "The Carrier" by James Michael Steimle. I've got to say this one didn't bowl me over. In a world where "CLEANLINESS IS TRULY DIVINE," as the hospital attendant's badge declares in golden letters, Helena finds herself at the government's mercy when she is informed by hospital staff of her illness. A litany of conspiratorial cover up and misinformation seemed to be a bit too heavy-handed a message, rounded out by a predictable ending verbatim to the one I had in my head by about page two. Is this a bad story? No, but I can't call it that good, either. The presentation of an issue without seeming to have a fully-resolved conflict keeps me from empathizing with Helena, a protagonist who does nothing to help herself out of her situation. The writing itself is adequate, but it tells a story that doesn't work for me. 

Full disclosure number two: I read Steve Goble's "The Fourth Knight's Quest" for a different anthology I was editing. Reading it again reminded me what a good story it was, one that would have found a home in my own table of contents had he not already had a piece in the collection. Rontain is a loyal knight, proving this by recounting the story of how he followed in the footsteps of three other brave knights on what seemed an impossible journey. That Rontain proves his loyalty in so dramatic a fashion caps off a classically presented adventure involving both ghosts and a dragon. Like Duncan's "The Oracle Unlocked," I had little doubt I would be reading "The Fourth Knight's Quest" again soon, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing them together here. 

Just knock me over after reading "127 Fears" by S. C. Bryce. Red Roan is a hero and adventurer, questing after the very real titular Fears brought to life and unleashed upon the world. But "in the dusk of his life," Red Roan has succeeded in destroying only two of the Fears, the 68th (Fear of Suffocation) and the 14th (Fear of Things That Creep). Forty-three years of adventuring have brought him to the end of his days with little to show for it, and he encounters a Fear that takes full advantage of his mood. The game I had going in my head while I read Bryce's stellar prose is what the Fear would be named (saved for the very end, which was a virtual certainty). You can play the game, too, and I'll let you know that my guess of Fear of Failure was wrong. A great, great story once again showing the outstanding relationship of a man and his role as hero, solid characterization punctuating the idea of the setting. 

The last two stories in this issue are SF pieces. "Last Contact" by Peter Andrews is told in a classic style, stringing together several articles, interviews and genuine prose to tell the story of Warren Emerson's life after being contacted by alien life. I particularly liked how attitudes and perspectives changed from the first FBI interview to the last, questionable speech. While not one of those stories that blows your mind, there's a certain "Stranger in a Strange Land" commingling of ideas that makes this a good read. 

"Problem in Logic" by Barton Paul Levenson takes a huge misstep about the military robot programmed with Asimov's Laws of Robotics. One of the story's characters says it best: "Asimov's Laws are science-fiction stuff; he introduced them to put a problem in logic in each of his robot stories." That Levenson uses the First Law here, regarding how a robot will not harm a human through action or inaction, improperly during a school demonstration forgets the other two laws regarding obeying commands and self-protection. The part that's left out is where the robot would follow those two laws so long as there is no conflict with the First Law. Asimov repeatedly demonstrated the Three Laws of Robotics in similar fashion to Levenson; in a situation where a robot could prevent injury to many humans by injuring (no matter how slight) a single human, the robot did nothing rather than break the First Law. Levenson rightly includes the philosophical debate about how harm to few outweighs the harm to many, yet it does nothing to make the transition from obeying the First Law to breaking it seem like a logical step. Perhaps it's my immersion as a younger reader in Asimov's tales where the logical flaws in the Laws of Robotics took chapters to define, but I feel Levenson expected the readers to suspend their disbelief a little too much to make this story's conclusion work. 

Like taking the very last bite of an outstandingly-prepared rib eye only to find it mostly gristle, I feel the concluding stories of this collection leave something amiss in what is otherwise a gathering of brilliantly-written speculative fiction. They can't all be gems, and one need only reread the first issue of Staffs & Starships to be reminded it is an achievement that's rarely seen. Most every collection of short fiction - whether it be an anthology or a magazine - is hit or miss. That Staffs & Starships is almost entirely hit (and bulls-eyes, to boot) proves that editors Waltz and Dryden have talent for spotting talent. This magazine comes highly recommended by your humble reviewer, who will have purchased a 4-issue-per-year subscription by the time you read these word. I hope you enjoy reading Staffs & Starships Magazine as much as I have, though there's little doubt about that.
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