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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

On Spec, #62, Fall 2005

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“Kenny’s Beach” by Kevin Cockle
“Ashes” by J. W. Anderson
“The Coming Years of Good” by Robert Burke Richardson
“Unravelling Biology” by Robert Lake
“He Immortal, Evergreen She” by Tony Pi
“The Tree” by Jack Skillingstead
“Neighbourhood Watch” by Suzan Tessier
“Fire and Ash” by M. Thomas
“Molly Dreams of Dolphins” by Laura E. Price
“Mourning Sickness” by Robert Weston

On Spec #62 starts out with a sharp little tale that splits the hair between decadence and depravity: Kevin Cockle’s “Kenny’s Beach.” Goal-driven, action-oriented, leadership-focused—these aren’t mindless corporate HR double-speak to Kenny, they are a philosophy. He wasn't going to stand meekly in line waiting for the axe when the depression came; he was going to take charge. Striking out on his own in the brave new world, he forged a new path to success by providing certain services to those living atop a mountain of wealth far above the law. The road to success is never easy, however, and often the question in the service industry is not how to provide the service but whether.

For those picky about the speculative part of speculative fiction, “Kenny’s Beach” may not be your particular shot of espresso. To my mind, there are only one or two sentences that hint that it might be set in the future. Then again, I may just have a skewed view of the kind of thing that happens within country clubs these days. Either way, I’m not particularly picky about such things, and I thought it was a fun little tale and an interesting idea for a new career, should I ever be in need of one.

For what would you betray your world? The death of a childhood friend has forced this question upon Zachariah, and the immanent arrival of the alien will force him to answer it in J. W. Anderson’s short story, “Ashes.” For being only seven pages long, the story still feels a bit heavy on exposition, taking what I feel would have been a truly great three- or four-page story into something that is merely very good. Very good is still very good, however, and thus I am happy to place upon "Ashes" the Paul Stamp of Approval.

And then we come to “The Coming Years of Good” by Robert Burke Richardson...

I’ve long claimed to be a fan of the weird, and Richardson’s story about a woman named Lauren and her new apartment is truly that. In my thirty years, I have suffered neither acid flashback nor psychotic break, however were I to have one, I imagine it would greatly resemble the diminutive, copulating couple filled with Devonshire cream that came with Lauren’s new apartment. The story isn't the kind of weird that leaves me feeling wowed or amused. No, I felt more a vague queasiness. It’s not a bad story; it’s not good. It’s a curiosity, and one I’ll certainly never forget.

This weird thread is continued by the next story of the issue: “Unravelling Biology.” Author Robert Lake gives us the farcical tale of a wunderkind’s realization that scientific genius can be used to kill a lot of people, his decent into yodeling, and his demise upon RCMP bullet. Unfortunately, this great concept didn't work for me as a story. The wit and humor of the narration felt just a bit too forced. Still, it was a good concept, and I'll be interested to read more of Robert Lakes's work.

There is this beautiful goddess. She is looking for her immortal love. She wants it to be you. All you have to do is let her give you the powers of a god of war. I don't know about you, but were I in that situation, I feel pretty confident that my response would be, "Yes," with the possible addition of, "Let the world burn!" and a spate of manic laughter. However, if Tony Pi’s “He Immortal, Evergreen She” is any guide, the proper tact seems to be to pause to consider, to angst, and to discover the import of civic duty in this post 9/11 world. Well, that's never going to happen, so I suppose I should look for another means to ascend to godhood.

The thing is, "He Immortal, Evergreen She" isn't a bad story. It's just a frustrating one. It's very well written, except for the occasional spot where the characters speak in civics sermons. It has the seeds to be a work of mythic passion. It involves chess. In the end, though, it falls apart into merely an interesting origin tale for a superhero in the War on Terrorism. So, my verdict on this story is: interesting, worth reading, but it should have been so much more.

There is a tree behind the back fence of Tom’s new home. There are a lot of trees, a forest actually, but as the title of Jack Skillingstead’s “The Tree” suggests, we are only concerned with one of them. It’s not a very nice tree. No, not very nice at all.

The story, however, is nice. Skillingstead (and, wow, is that not the perfect name for a horror writer, or what?) is able to entwine an eldritch fear of the dark unknown within the woods into a more prosaic tale of the strained relationship between a teenage boy, his mother, and her new husband to good effect. The creepiness he achieves more than offsets the fact that the ending is not much of a surprise. It’s not my favorite story of the issue, but it’s one I enjoyed.

The demons that haunt a sad, old, repressed, and persnickety lady’s memory take up residence on her neighbor’s roof in “Neighbourhood Watch” by Suzan Tessier. There are stories that give you an extra spring in your step and put a jaunty little tune on your lips after you read them. This is not one of them. Is that a bad thing? No. It’s still an effective story; just be aware that said effect is likely to be a general malaise and perhaps depression. On the other hand, if you happen to be menaced by a repressed and persnickety neighbor, this story might be the mood-lifting, cathartic revel in the inner misery of such a person that the doctor ordered.

So far this issue, we’ve had bizarre, we’ve had depressing, but never the twain together. If this seems inefficient to you, then author M. Thomas seems to agree in “Fire and Ash.” The city of Majole is an unpleasant place to be. First off, it’s situated in the belly of a rotting fish. Then there is the fact that owning a book is an offense punishable by being burned alive. Add to that the fighting between the bourgeois and the proletariat, and you’ve got a city that isn’t going to be on my vacation itinerary. Now, when you’ve got a story in which books are being destroyed, the hero is usually the only person around brave enough to try and keep them safe. “Fire and Ash” is no exception, but it does add a nice twist by having the hero start eating the books to stave off starvation. As I said: bizarre and depressing. It is, however, beautifully written and wonderfully imaginative. While I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this story very often, I will be keeping an eye out for more of M. Thomas’s work.

As I began “Molly Dreams of Dolphins” by Laura E. Price, I began to have doubts in the editors’ judgment in placing stories. I fully understand why they chose to include it in the issue. This masterfully written story about the loss, regret, and fear of having survived a plague that killed so many friends and loved-ones reads very much like a knife cuts: painfully. It’s the kind of story that people will be buying back issues for a decade from now. Yet, after two depressing stories, I felt I was in need of some lighter fare. I was wrong, and my doubts in the editors’ ability were unfounded. Yes, the cutting knife hurts, but in the hands of a skilled surgeon it also heals. So it is with this story.

After three depressing stories, surely it was time for something in the way of lightness and fluffiness, perhaps a nice story about happy bunnies conquering the universe or a romp in a world where reviewing short genre fiction is something women find attractive, or something. No, of course not, for the final story of the issue I got more sadness. But, hey, it was sadness with elephants, so it was all good.

Yes, "Mourning Sickness," Robert Weston’s yarn about our mourning following us around as non-metaphorical elephants is as light-hearted a tale about the sudden loss of a close friend as you are likely to find. There is just something terribly appealing about the idea. Granted, there is something more appealing about the idea of not ever loosing close friends, but if our friends must die, we should at least get an elephant out of it. It's an excellent story and an excellent close for this issue of On Spec.