Reviewed by Robert Runté
Arlene F. Marks is the author of the six books in the Sic Transit Terra series (with more to come), a couple of standalone novels, and a surprising number of textbooks on writing. Her first short story collection, Imaginary Friends, has just been released from Brian Lag Publishing, an up-and-coming small press based in Ontario specializing in Canadian SF&F. Traditionally published collections like this one are rare because it is an industry truism that single-author collections don’t sell, unless by the biggest names in the genre or the hottest new authors. Marks is no newcomer and probably not yet a household name, but she is that good.
My favourite story in the collection is “Candle”, about a Rabbi dealing with loss. It not only provides a brief sample of the Sic Transit Terra universe, it’s Marks at her best. Love, grief, faith, bureaucracy, space colonies, the Angle of Death . . . and underneath it all, Marks’ unquenchable sense of hope, the sense that life finds a way if only we are up for the challenge. Her ability to make even minor characters real to me with just a single line or action is on full display in this one: so much character stuffed into so few words. This will be a story I’ll return to again and again whenever I am stuck writing my own secondary characters because this is how it’s done.
Similarly, “Comfort Food”, “The Witch in the ’Hood”, and “Bemused” all share the same quiet optimism as “Candle”. Life is hard, sometimes tragic, but we just have to step up and get through it. “Comfort Food” is particularly charming: comfort food indeed.
“Freudian Slip” is a straightforward feminist take on suburbia, with maybe just enough of a nod to horror to qualify the story for inclusion in this speculative fiction collection. “Business is Business” is Marks’ take on the ‘deal with the devil’ story; “Double Back” is her rather ingenious contribution to the time travel genre; “The Best Defense” is her first contact story, and “Maury and Shred Go Ballistic” is a spinoff from two of the minor characters in one of her novels. Together, Marks covers the main subgenres of speculative fiction.
That last third of the collection is taken up by “Manua’s Children” and is fully worth the price of admission on its own. This novella of farming on a colony world is homey, charming, and oozing Marks’ underlying optimism. There is a mystery to be solved, friends to be rescued, and terrifying secrets to be uncovered, yet every scene still manages to somehow feel warm and comforting. Every scene—even the nightmare ones—is so infused with the love the characters have for each other that the story is more cozy mystery than horror.
Underlying the setting, plot, and ultimately even the characterization, is a completely brilliant SF concept, one I’ve never come across before in over fifty years of reading in the genre. A completely new idea in SF is as rare as a student essay with an original take on Macbeth: it happens occasionally, but the author is, therefore, to be treasured. Marks’ asks, “what if X happened in the middle of Y”. (Sorry, I have a strict “no spoiler” policy, so that is as clear as I am prepared to make it—but a close parallel would be Langelaan taking the popular idea of teleportation and asking “what if a fly got in”? “The Fly” is one of modern speculative fiction’s most famous works, with five film adaptations, an opera, and hundreds of references in popular culture. Marks’ own novella is clearly worth at least one movie and there’s an entire subgenre embedded in this concept for other writers to take up and give their own slant. The first editor reading this review to steal Mark’s basic what if as a prompt is guaranteed a winning anthology or themed SF magazine issue.
My only. quibble with this anthology is Marks having given in to the expectation for author introductions. Introductions are always a mistake, because either they contain spoilers (No! Bad author!) or they say a lot of nothing in order to avoid containing spoilers. Commentary should always be moved to after each story, where the story can be meaningfully discussed without compromising the readers’ initial experience. Marks’ introductions are a fifty-fifty mix of spoilers (especially annoying for the novella—what was she thinking?!) and filler, so I advise readers to play it safe and avoid them until after. What was wanted was brief gossip about each story immediately afterward, and a concluding, more in-depth essay about her purpose in writing, her writing process, her view of the genre, and so on, to round out the collection at the very end.
Notwithstanding that one very minor caution, I recommend Imaginary Friends to you, both for itself and as an introduction to a Canadian author who deserves to be much better known.
Imaginary Friends is published by Brain Lag Publishing.