Review: One Weird Idea

By B.A. Campbell

Mathieu, Roscoe, ed. One Weird Idea, May 2011. Glorious Dawn Press (2011). 69 pp. ISBN: 0983453209.

One Weird Idea is “the first e-format periodical”. No, wait. It’s “the world’s first anthozine” – a hybrid organism marrying the best traits of a magazine with those of an anthology.

I’ll tell you what it is: It’s damn good SF at a damn reasonable value. Its credo – “Take an idea, and write a story around it” – may not be a particularly new idea, but it’s a ludicrously sensible one and it makes for some tasty nuggets of SF delivered to your e-reader for the price of a McDonald’s double cheeseburger.

If you’ve ever been awakened in the dead of night by the paralyzing certainty that the entire universe is just a high-fidelity, total-sensory recording being played on an infinite loop as part of some unimaginably vast and convoluted behavioural experiment, One Weird Idea is the…err… anthozine for you. Ditto if you’ve devoted even passing thought to the famous brain-in-a-vat hypothesis (“How do we know what’s really real, man?”). The stories in OWI are thought experiments: notions carried to their extreme (sometimes inevitable) conclusion, their implications meticulously, uncompromisingly explored.

They are what Bradbury meant when he said, “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again.” Think Bradbury. Think Dick, Atwood, Huxley, Heinlein, Ellison, Orwell, Le Guin, and Verne. Since we’re thinking outside the box, think Borges and Bioy Casares, think Swift…and, yes, think Lovecraft.

What OWI isn’t is an anthology of Weird Fiction. Since this is Innsmouth, I thought it was a fair warning. The closest we get is in contributor Lachlan Atcliffe’s enormously entertaining cover letters, published in the “Letters” section – one of OWI‘s many nods to SF rags of yore. Narrated by a man identified as the retainer for Atcliffe’s future-dwelling protagonist (Don’t ask me how that works), the letters detail the dire circumstances of Mr. Atcliffe, last seen heading a nudist expedition of Amazonian scholar-warriors into the caldera of Mount Terror, in search of the Great Race rumoured to dwell beneath.

That yarn aside, these weird ideas tend to be more casually than generically weird: They traffic in predetermination, hyper-connectivity in the post-Information Age, or the triumph of New Age mysticism over scientific rationalism. In fact, the title’s a bit imprecise: It’s not the ideas that are weird, it’s the world shaped by them. What gives these stories their power is the same threat that has loomed over science fiction from the beginning: more than a “What If?” scenario, these are worlds on the verge of becoming, the imaginable – but not always desirable – futures nascent in the ideas and technologies of our age. In the end, they are always about human nature, and the latent question is always: Will we be able to adapt to the times, or will we change the times to adapt to us? Which possibility is the more horrifying?

After reading the first two stories in OWI‘s debut issue, you might be tempted to answer, “Both.” “His Final Experiment” by David L. Clements offers a sober look at our moral system’s capacity to withstand the possibility that all our actions and decisions have already been foreordained. Some might call this an odd premise for a detective story…and the twist in the execution only makes it odder. Mike Combs’ “Condemned to Repeat It”, meanwhile, envisions a courtroom at the whimsy of mediums and aura-readers, where witnesses swear on Out On A Limb and any conclusion arrived at via scientific methodology is deemed inadmissible. The unapologetic thoroughness with which Combs follows through on this idea – the Psychic-Stenographer takes down the defendant’s “thoughts” rather than words and the judge channels an Atlantean Priestess to deliver the verdict – makes this a hilarious and effective satire, slightly undermined by the unnecessary closing “notes for the reader”. If the story requires an explanation to make its message clear – and this one plainly didn’t – then it hasn’t done its job.

Lachlan Atcliffe’s “Signoffs” swings the needle back toward the “Final Experiment” side of the debate with a story in which our own technology, consensually employed, has made us something other than human. Its protagonist is a lawyer in a world so mediated by information exchange as to be almost unrecognizable. His wife is a nigh-omnipotent collection of virtual representations, he can have copies of his consciousness working on 12 projects at once, and authorization to make use of “human resources” gives him the right to hijack the bodies of CEOs as his own personal meat-puppets. How can human law continue to function when we have, for all intents and purposes, transcended the human? Does a physical copy of our bodies, or a virtual copy of our minds, inherit the rights of the original? These are the questions Atcliffe asks – and he does it in a way that would make Gibson weep with envy. “Signoffs” is OWI, Issue 1’s standout story, and the world and characters it introduces are ones I would love to see revisited and serialised.

Cass Trumbo’s “The Schmeding Center” takes several of “Signoffs'” central ideas and condenses them into a more intimate vision of a much-nearer future. If we could keep the personalities of our loved ones on file and interact with them, even beyond death, how might their continued presence in our lives flavour our experience of basic human accomplishments – a promotion, a marriage proposal? Where Atcliffe blurs the lines of what we consider human, Trumbo has more faith in the essence of humanity to triumph over such vanitas and in the importance of death’s finality in the making of our own lives.

The issue closes with a story by the editor, R. Jean Mathieu, and a contribution from co-publisher Paul Skelding. Respectively titled “Measuring the Marigolds” and “The Goldville Alien”, the core idea in each of them is, surprisingly, more difficult to pin down than in some of the other contributions. “Marigolds” offers a glimpse into the void between stars, while “Alien” injects a symbiotic-lifeform scenario into the tale of a war-scarred country doctor. They are both good stories, though I would have to point to “Alien” as the issue’s weakest link, if only because, for a story about dermal incisions and exploratory surgery, it barely seems to break the surface of its relatively tame idea. “Marigolds”, with its Taoist undertones, has a better excuse for remaining reserved when it comes to its implications, but I still feel the editor missed his opportunity to really showcase the “one weird idea” structure; instead, he gave us a story that could have been included in countless other SF publications.

Because I am reviewing the publication, and not just the stories, I feel obliged to mention that the copyediting in the PDF I reviewed – which is labeled for “General Release” – was a little spotty. Most stories, such as Mathieu’s, were nice and clean, but others – most notably Skelding’s – were so error-prone as to interrupt the flow of reading, piling up to as many as three typos in a two-line paragraph. On the other hand, this being an e-format periodical, nothing is set in stone (or ink), and these “bugs” may already have been reported and fixed.

SF was once known as “the Literature of Ideas” rather than “the Literature of Tropes”, and writers like Atcliff, Combs and Trumbo prove that, even though we’re living in an age when many of SF’s earliest predictions have already come true – as Mathieu points out, some people are reading this on their phones – the genre hasn’t yet outlived its relevance. The best endorsement I can come up with is that OWI‘s premise got me excited, not just as a reader but as a writer. It’s clear from the content of this issue that a lot of other writers felt the same, which can only spell out a good future for this little anthozine and its lucky readership.

An SF quarterly that’s reliable, affordable and accessible? Now there’s an idea.

One Weird Idea is available from