Penumbric Speculative Fiction Mag, ed. Jeff Georgeson. Vol v issue 6 (April 2022). Online at penumbric.com.
Reviewed by Christina De La Rocha
The April “2k22” issue, entitled “Experimental Realms,” completes the second full year of publication of Penumbric following a fifteen-year hiatus. “Experimental Realms” is also one of Penumbric magazine’s roughly annual special “art and prose” issues. There is certainly no shortage of either (plus poetry) in the issue; 78 numbered pages thick, it features nine speculative fiction tales, six poems, and, including the cover, seven works of art as well as panels and notes relating to the webcomic Mondo Mecho.
“Experimental Realms” was my first brush with Penumbric. I wish I could say its offerings turned out to be my cup of tea, but I finished the issue enthused by exactly one story (although, I will drop in a dreaded adverb and amend that to incredibly enthused because I truly loved this story). I am willing to admit that this might be my problem more than the magazine’s. You might very well love lots of the speculative art, stories, and poems in “Experimental Realms.” Much love and effort went into them from the editor, the authors, and the artists. Meanwhile, I am a dinosaur whose tastes in stories lean more toward those you would be more likely to call science fiction than speculative fiction.
To be fair, Penumbric, named for regions cast into twilight because some object has gotten in the way and is obscuring some of the light, delivers what it aims to: otherworldly explorations of the place between darkness and light, consciousness and unconsciousness, and the present and the future. This it does with ideological gusto as well, meaning without ads and on a shoestring budget. It is exactly the sort of endeavor we ought to be rooting for: one done with enthusiasm and for all the right reasons.
Since “Experimental Realms” is too jam-packed to go through everything in a short review, let me stick to the stories to give you an idea of what you’ll find in there. Many of the stories explore personal growth via experiencing an altered state of consciousness or being. In the sinister “Unknown Canadian Artist,” by Zandra Renwick, an artist escapes the stifling frying pan of the bureaucratic state only to land inside a dank—and futile—obsession with painting the evil that feeds on humanity. In Lisa Towles’s “Ruba’s Rift,” the main character has a long, trippy, and mind-expanding adventure guided by a divine and alien being. In “The Remembrance Engine,” by Elad Haber, Eve and the Snake battle it out for the soul—and the future—of humanity in the guise of rival drug lords offering vastly different wares with vastly different effects on the human psyche.
Then there are the stories that involve endlessness. In Toni Artuso’s “Workshop Without End, Amen,” the main character works through life’s loose ends and wrongs via poetry in purgatory with the help of spiritual guides in the form of dead poets of considerable renown. In “Black Hole,” Matias Travieso-Diaz weaves the trope of a micrometeoroid catastrophically disrupting the systems of a ship full of colonists in suspended animation into a bittersweet tragedy of love. In “Poppy’s Poppy,” by David Gwilym, the patriarchy never rests, not even after death. Meanwhile, Wendy Nickel truly nails hell in “Let Me Sleep When I Die,” pointing out that resting in peace might not be so bad compared to spending eternity continuously faced with the consequences of actions you took during life. But things go better for the protagonist of “The Park of Future Heroes,” by Aaron Emmel. In this story, a multiverse’s worth of chances means that there you might eventually find the time line where you break through the bad and bitter endings.
The one story I really loved in “Experimental Realms”—“The Teaseller,” by B.B. Garin—is the one that doesn’t fit into either of these general categories. It uses day to day existence in a dour dystopia to explore love, loss, the wisdom and wistfulness that come with the passage of time, and the quieter acts of grace and resistance people offer to each other in dark times. It is a tale told by an old man, more observer than active participant in life, who sells everyone from weary soldiers to dancers and criminal musicians small cups of soul-warming, spiritual sustenance in a world gone hopeless and grey. Of all the creative works in this April 2k22 issue of Penumbric, “The Teaseller” is the one that will stay in my brain for a while. And even though I am more of a science fiction fan than a speculative fiction fan, “The Teaseller” was enough of a story that I’m glad that Penumbric is out there as a venue for the stories that take place in the places that only get part of the light.