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    Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:21am

Commonality, by Robert J. Santa

originally published 11/13/2006

A Firebrand Fiction Review by Robert J. Santa 

As I move into a second career in the writing industry - that of editor - I find myself looking at collections with a new-found perspective. It is not only an editor's role to select the stories he or she feels is best for a publication; another decision needs to be made regarding the bond that's going to hold those stories together. For some it may be as simple as a themed anthology. But for the editors who choose to open their doors to unthemed stories, finding a commonality may prove daunting. 

In an effort to bring the Firebrand Fiction column onto a regular schedule (stolen at gunpoint, I might add, from Daniel Blackston who can surely have his soapbox back as soon as I'm done pontificating), I will be reading and reviewing one market in each column. With any luck, this will help turn FF back into a monthly gig. 

Commonality did not seem to be present at first when I flipped through the pages of ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS Spring 2007, which also happens to be the debut issue. Editor Jason Champion put together a mix of speculative fiction that runs the gamut of settings and situations. Yet after reading these stories, a theme did, in fact, jump out at me and slap me about a bit. 

Before we can even talk about the stories the issue of cover art begs (nay, demands) to be addressed. Ryan Durney's masterful illustration of a dimetrodon fleeing the crashing of a space station perfectly captures the idea that ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS is (as the subtitle states) "a magazine of science fiction and fantasy stories." The back cover is also illustrated with his digital art rendition of a scene from "A Snowball's Chance." It is obvious Jason (who does not prefer to be called Mr. Champion) is as much a disbeliever of the proverb "don't judge a book by its cover" as I am. Many times I have purchased a book or magazine based solely on its cover art, and in truth is the reason I purchased this copy of ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS. 

The opening piece is "Save a Dance for the Plowman" by Justin Stanchfield. His poignant story about plowman Mark Reynolds who pines with an unspoken love for a coworker deepens as he finds himself in the midst of rescuing stranded travelers. His coworker is leaving, and he is missing the opportunity to tell her of his true feelings. This piece could be taking place anywhere there is deep snow; that it is set on the frozen moon of a gas giant planet is what makes this piece appropriate for the magazine. It is an outstanding bit of storytelling, and my only concern is the element of science fiction. This story could indeed be taking place in the heart of Alaska, as the science element is not terribly important to the advancement of the plot. To be fair, however, this is nitpicking. Stanchfield has created a marvelous tale deserving of the lead-in status of a new magazine. 

Less impressive for me was the following piece: "Sleep Magic" by Daniel Ausema. That is not to say his story was bad; it was merely adequate in the telling of a shaman whose most powerful skill is to make others fall asleep. After preventing an all out war, I wondered how the shaman protagonist was responsible for affecting change. This is a very short piece, so if you are left scratching your head over the same question, no matter how well written the prose is, at least you reached the end rapidly. 

John N. Baker did not just compose "Nithhad: The Lonely Valley," he illustrated it as well with ten small sketches that blend well with the flavor of the piece. This is a folktale type of story, reminiscent of the long narratives found in Native American oratories of the American West. The novella format, however, does a disservice to this account of the titular hero, for his coming of age and transformation seems to wander. It is a good story which I feel would have been better if it was shorter. 

I'm a sucker for Twilight Zone-esque stories, but they need to be well done for I feel Rod Serling and Company told them all decades ago. Enter "High Concept" by John B. Rosenman, whose protagonist in Herbert Einhorn is a bit of a schlump. Bullied at his marketing job, repressed in his extended family home, Herbert engages in the imagining of his own high concept: creating the successful, intelligent and supportive older brother he never had. Robby guides him through the next several weeks, advising and congradulating him, until Herbert gains the self-confidence he always lacked. Right about now is when the Twilight Zone homage tends to fall apart, but Rosenman succeeds with admirable simplicity. I could all but envision Mr. Serling standing in the wings gritting his teeth through the closing monologue. 

"A Snowball's Chance" is Kurt Kirchmeier's contribution of either modern fantasy or science fiction, depending on your viewpoint. Gifted student Casey just can't seem to stop creating universes, even though he's not supposed to do it until he graduates to advanced classes. Add some jealous classmates to the mix and a well-thrown snowball, and this piece succeeds despite its heavy-handed (and yes, irreligious) message. 

I didn't like Greg Jenkins' very short piece "Iron Man" about a rampaging colossus in modern suburbia. Perhaps it's because it followed the not-too-subtle philosophy of Kirchmeier's story. Back to back messages took the wind of entertainment from my sails, and I felt I was being lectured to through the pages. 

A pleasant change came with "Penny Royalty for the Pound Mob" by Gene Stewarts. Written with the outstanding narrative voice of an off-world piano player who happens to translate the speech patterns of a fearful alien race, I regretted seeing the story come to an end. 

"Prizes" by Edward Muller suffered for me from what I see as a common failing in science fiction: bad science. In the tradition of the early years of SF, this piece focuses too tightly on the story and treats the science as the setting. With the educated readers of today's SF, I don't believe writers can cut corners the way they used to. This story of a rescue attempt after a crash on the Venusian surface fell short because of this despite its solid, dialogue-delivered ending. Still, in the context of the stories it was trying to emulate, it's a good piece. 

Bruce Golden wrote a very good fantasy in "The Apocryphist," where the unnecessarily alien protagonist becomes the apprentice to the tribal sage. That the sage rewrites history to suit his needs is another not-so-subtle message, but it works as well here as it does with Kirchmeier's "Snowball." 

Finishing this issue is Michael A. Pignatella's "Whitening." Henpecked Arnie greets his wife's two week vacation with glee, as it gives him the opportunity to bleech his teeth with Opal Extra White, a vanity his wife never would have allowed. Without the twist-within-a-twist found in all Twilight Zone tales, I still imagine this one could have fit right in with "High Concept" for Rod Serling's attention. Of course, the Opal Extra White changes more than Arnie's tooth color, and while there isn't much closure for this piece, it is still well done. 

So what's the commonality? Virtually all of these stories feature a beaten-down protagonist rising against the oppression of his environment. With the exception of "Nithhad," none of these pieces has a protagonist who starts out as a hero; check that, most of them would have to struggle just to get to average. That they succeed provides an uplifting common thread refreshing in today's speculative fiction world where too many unhappy or tragic endings seem the norm. 

If the premier issue of ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS is any indicator of what the magazine is going to be like (and in all honesty, why should I suspect otherwise?) then I'm glad I purchased a subscription. Any collection is bound to be hit or miss; with the exception of one piece, these all hit the dartboard somewhere, with a couple of bulls-eyes. I look forward to the next collection of good, and sometimes great, fantasy and science fiction stories.
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