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

Neo-opsis #8

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"Love Among the Vacuum Spiders" by David McGillveray
"Finely Tuned" by Virginia O'Dine
"Hell of a Salesman" by Hank Quense
"Listen" by William Steinmetz
"Medyna's Choice" by Fran Jacobs
"First Waltz" by Rae Dawn Carson

David McGillveray spins a gentle tale of love among aliens in "Love among the Vacuum Spiders." On the Web among the stars, the female vacuum spiders weave their lovenests, waiting for the males to make the long journey from their icehomes so they may finally mate. Musk is a female entering her first mating season. Unlike the other females, she doesn't consider males to be merely breeders without intelligence. Will the male that comes to her be able to understand her desires?

This is a story that packs a punch. Its main strength is the utterly convincing depiction of the spiders.  Ordinarily, the problem in that sort of exercise is walking the line between genuine aliens and characters we no longer empathize with. All too often, aliens end up as little more than humans in a funny suit. Here I was able to easily share Musk's feelings and yearnings, but McGillveray doesn't forget to insert little jolts to remind us that these are not humans. The ending, while not entirely unexpected, left me completely satisfied.

Thoroughly recommended.

"Finely Tuned" by Virginia O'Dine presents a future in which cars have become obsolete. People use stones to levitate and thus move around. Unfortunately, Jack is unable to use his stone because he cannot attune himself to it. He has to take his car, and gasoline costs a fortune.

Perhaps it was the shortness of the story, but "Finely Tuned" didn't work for me. I found the ending unexpected in the bad sense of the term. I barely had time to settle down with the idea of levitating stones before the story was over, and I felt insufficient ground had been laid for the ending.  It also seemed that the story arc was merely lead-up to the final joke. Oil shortage is a timely problem, and one that could have been developed here, but instead the author gives us a world in which "stones" have solved all the problems. It felt like cheating.

In "Hell of a Salesman" by Hank Quense, the narrator, Anthony Bello, is picked up by Beelzebub at his death and taken to a market for imps and leprechauns. For his living offences (lying to customers, overcharging them...) he is condemned to sell items there is no demand for. But Bello is resourceful, and finding out how he thwarts Beelzebub is one of the pleasures of the story.

If I have one criticism to make, it is that the last few paragraphs are jarring. The first-person narration is abruptly interrupted such that it took me several lines to see it. I had to reread the ending to see how it made sense. And make sense it did, but I would have preferred a smoother delivery.

There have been numerous descriptions of the afterlife and numerous stories with resourceful characters who outwit their opponents. What sets this one apart is the delivery of the narrator who sees everything in terms of "sales angle," "product benefit," etc. It makes for hilarious effect and at the same time makes you wonder whether the narrator really has learnt anything. Probably not, but I guess some people are incorrigible.

In "Listen" by William Steinmetz the protagonist is a negotiator who has carried out many successful jobs. He works for a company that has few scruples when it comes to deals: the last person who refused to negotiate with him was killed. But now he has to deal with his father who stole company data. And his father won't listen to him. Can he save his father's life?

I didn't think much of "Listen" at first; it opens slowly with the narrator telling a story to his father. But, as it progresses, the tension unfolds until it becomes almost tangible. As the narrator runs of options, I clearly sensed his growing panic. And the ending was a shock, but a welcome one.

I've read other negotiator stories before. Usually, the stakes are either very large (like negotiating with terrorists), or personal (the negotiator has to deal, on behalf of others, with people who have one of his loved ones). Here, the situation is reversed. The narrator has almost no stake except the desire to save his father's life. It makes for a very personal and intimate character study, and one that is utterly believable. The last lesson the narrator learns is one you are sure to remember long after reading the story.

"Medyna's Choice" by Fran Jacobs has a strong opening: Medyna, a woman traveling on the road, is drawn to a funeral pyre. But it is not because of the ambient sorrow, rather, Medyna is looking for an "unattached male" for reasons that are not immediately clear.

The main problem I had with "Medyna's Choice" was that I had no idea what Medyna wanted. Since the whole story is in her point of view, that was frustrating. The reader only discovers what she is up to after a lengthy evening. And by the time I discovered that, I was disinclined to believe that her idea had any kind of sense. I finished the story with a strong sense of dissatisfaction, and an even stronger one of confusion.

The story itself has little to distinguish it from staple fantasies with common villages and demons. While Medyna is a strong character with strong ideas, Jacobs does not reveal enough for me to empathize with her.

In "First Waltz" by Rae Dawn Carson, Analisa Alvarez is an ambassador specializing in first contact with aliens. Her latest assignment is on Parity, a planet where the sentient life forms, dubbed "Lilies," function exclusively in pairs. Alvarez, months away from retirement, must get the Lilies to agree to a mining contract. But no progress has been made and she despairs she will ever be able to retire.

I liked the setting and the depiction of the aliens. As the story moves towards its climax, the author takes time to reflect on the nature of alienness—most notably, how things we take for granted can seem mind-boggling to strangers. The ending seemed a tad cheeky compared with the rest of the story, but it worked.

Again, first contact stories are a staple of SF. Carson avoids most of the pitfalls of depicting aliens, although sometimes the Lilies made me think of primitive tribes (most notably during the scene when they try to commune with their god). It is a common problem in the trope that either the aliens have no technology to speak of or they or are vastly more advanced than humans. "First Waltz" doesn't break the pattern, nor, in the end, does it provide more than an entertaining read. 

Overall, this issue of Neo-opsis is good. Apart from the one story I couldn't get into, the others are strong, and two of them (McGillveray's and Steinmetz's) are stellar. I'll be looking for more offerings from these two authors.