Friday, September 27, 2013

Fundamental Problems / Michael J. Tobias

Reviewed by: Keith Nixon

Genre: Short Story Collection

Approximate word count: 20-25,000 words

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The author holds degrees from several education institutions. He has held positions in several churches and held a range of jobs during his career. The author is currently working on the first part of a trilogy.


A collection of six stories in a variety of genres.


I spent a lot of this book asking myself - why? Fundamentally I wasn’t sure the purpose of the stories.

The first tale is, like the collection, titled Fundamental Problems. It resides in the sci-fi genre and is about two men on a space ship who arrive at a planet called earth and inform the 8.1 billion people living there that they haven’t been following the rules of the Creator. As a result they have a day to respond to the charge or the planet will be destroyed (shades of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). For Creator, read God and for the rules read the ten commandments.

The story is filled with entirely unfamiliar names of people, planets, galaxies, races, dates and so on. They are introduced in a stream with little explanation – therefore the reader has to readily accept and believe the author. I struggled with this. The ending was supposed to be wry, however the whole story structure left me unclear and unsatisfied.

The second short, Literary Snob, suffered this same issue with belief suspension. The genre this time is best described as crime. Across a nameless city women are periodically emptying their bank account of all their cash. The next day they are no longer in possession of the money nor their memories of the event.

Enter Harry Wyndham, PI, to investigate. He follows the trail to a couple who are using an unusual method to drug the women. By the time he tracks the perpetrator down we learn Harry is not what he seems and the criminals have managed to steal some extremely high tech gadget and are using it in a revenge plot. I seriously struggled to accept the premise and found the plot messy. Almost as if the author had started out with one aim in mind and concluded with an entirely different one.

The Muse is just that. The narrator arrives at a flat where two friends are playing some music. The guys talk about writing music and stories. And that’s it.

Gradual Epiphany is a coming of age type recollection. The narrator meets a girl and joins a church to get closer to him. The pair don’t get on, but the narrator gradually begins to wonder if there is a God (initially starting out as a sceptic) and eventually undertakes a psychology degree. The questioning of a higher being’s existence continues…

The Crossing is another story that starts out down one path but concludes in another. The narrator is in a bad way, life is not good. The guy, Mike, seems to have lost a lover. Then he receives a voicemail from her, yet several pages on we learn his girlfriend is dead (!). Is this a paranormal event?

Amazingly the dead woman, Kate, calls again. But wait, she’s not dead. She thinks he’s the one who died and is calling from the grave. Each still lives in the home they shared – but the addresses are different. So they arrange to meet. He goes to Kate’s flat. The voice is the same, but the person is different. Confused? Me too.

So the pair become friends, but marry other people. Then Mike suddenly dies and she begins to question whether they should have actually developed a relationship… and that’s it. Messy, unclear and confusing.

The final story is The Minstrel’s Tale. This was in the fantasy genre. It, like some of the earlier stories, assumes the reader has a knowledge of the people and places within. It opens with the narrator, a squire, discussing his Lord, Youngblade, who is the finest swordsman in the country. One day the pair happen across a stranger and give him shelter. It transpires the stranger is in fact a killer, and an extremely talented one. Youngblade attempts to take the stranger prisoner, but is easily bested and killed.

So the squire enters the killer’s employ. Again this is a confusing tale. Lots of unfamiliar names and races thrown in, discussions of the variety of Gods that inhabit the world, a lot of discussion about the stranger’s motivations. Well over halfway through the squire is finally named as Pelos, but for some reason the killer doesn’t like this and changes Pelos’ name to Cattis. Thoroughly confusing. The writing is at times garbled and there is repetition in word usage which just adds to the situation.

Here’s an example of the writing:

And so, my two-year odyssey began. I saw much, learned much and forgot much. Most of what I forgot, I did so intentionally, a manner of ‘unlearning’ you might say. One of the things I learned was just how much I had to forget.


Format/Typo Issues:

Repeat word usage.

Rating: ** Two Stars

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