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

On Spec, #48, Spring 2002

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"The Sounds That Come After Screaming" by Ian Creasey
"Nothing is Normal" by James Van Pelt
"The Second Rat" by David Barr Kirtley
"Ynngla" by Natalka Roshak
"Home" by Paul E. Martens
"Taking Pains" by Julia Helen Watts
"Death, Taxes, and Mackerel," by Karen Traviss
"A Stone for Mr. Crowe" by James Allison

I like On Spec. Its clean layout is easy on the eyes, and there's a consistent feel to the fiction indicating a clear editorial vision. The few ads are unobtrusive; the cover art and interior visuals original. It's easy to see why this magazine's been around for forty-eight issues, and I hope On Spec stays around for forty-eight more. I know I'll be reading future issues, if only to see how they managed to include so many stories about pain, isolation, and alienation, and not have the magazine be depressing. If I had to guess, I'd say it is the editor's ability to find stories that counterbalance those downers with compassion, intelligence, and humor.

"The Sounds That Come After Screaming" by Ian Creasey

This issue starts strong; I am definitely going to be looking for more work by Ian Creasey. He posits a single technological extrapolation--- the ability to evoke pain in humans without physiological damage—then builds a social context around it. Creasey manages to evoke the contemporary events without being too topically bound by them as he comments on the dehumanization that comes with war, the moral laxity that accompanies current armchair everythings, and the dangers of virtual experience that isn't only virtual. He does this primarily through having a great voice for the main character, who was forced to take part in competitions with other prisoners to see who could take the most pain. I didn't buy every detail of Creasey's world, but the emotional core of the plot, with the character later choosing to take part in such competitions for personal gain, then making moral decisions around pain, was right on target.

"Nothing is Normal" by James Van Pelt

If I had to sum up this story in one sentence I'd say that the world feels real, but too familiar—and the story isn't done. Van Pelt, who is publishing widely these days, including several previous stories in On Spec, gives us a near future urban setting in which humans manipulate their internal state by popping pills with names like "GrieF" or "RegreT," which deliver "highs" of specific emotions. His character, who is driven by the childhood trauma of abuse and neglect, uses and deals these drugs, and gets caught up on some drug dealer intrigue. If this all sounds familiar, it should. There are science fictional traces, such as the mass extinction of many larger animal species, and the mobile tattoos that characters sport, but they aren't integrated into the story. This is a slight and contemporary story in pretty good prose, trying to pass for fantastic.

"The Second Rat" by David Barr Kirtley

If Van Pelt's story was mainstream in disguise, Kirtley's is Golden Age and glorying in it. His main character, Todd Rawlins, has the ability to "rewind life." If something unpleasant happens, he can "rewind" the world to a time of his choice: five minutes earlier, five days earlier, even five years. He then gets what so many of us want when we've screwed up, or things haven't worked out, a do-over. What's nice for Rawlins is that he retains the complete memory of what will happen, and can so plan accordingly. What's especially nice about this story is the second rat. The second rat, a term taken from psych lab experiments, is the other person for whom Rawlins's power works. Yes, every time Rawlins has rewound time for himself, this hapless innocent also has his life rewound, but without cause, without explanation, without control. In one stroke Kirtley turns a basic power fantasy into a moral cautionary tale—and keeps it entertaining.

"Ynngla" by Natalka Roshak

What is it with these kids today, with their dying their hair and piercing things and their "ynngla!" Roshak gives us a character who is somewhat stereotypical, but largely believable, gives us a standard generation-gap line of complaining, and then gives it a mild twist. What if the slang that divides the generation were something larger? And what if it spread, until you were the only one who wasn't in on this new thing? "Ynngla" wasn't new, or particularly surprising at any point, but Roshak does a good job with the emotional texture of isolation.

"Home" by Paul E. Martens

What is it with people today, not respecting their elders and forgetting the way things used to be? Why, you can't get a good stitzz anywhere anymore, not like when I was young! Yes, "Home" is another story about generational change, this time via an out of place alien rather than linguistic shorthand that grows into telepathy. Again the situation is familiar, and again, it is one that is barely fantastic—a member of one culture ends up staying in America not completely of his own will, but makes a home of it, even marrying a local girl. He can barely remember his own language, but instead of Chinese, or Polish, Eyul is straining to remember the language of his people on Tethys. A couple of quickly delivered science fictional plot twists are necessary to make the story work (relativity making Eyul the oldest person in a society that prizes age, and which lost its elders to a plague), and they are delivered very quickly indeed. In the end, "Home" is a shaggy dog story with a big heart.

"Taking Pains" by Julia Helen Watts

In "Taking Pains," Julia Helen Watts gives us healers who literally take the pain from those they serve. There are several ways this could be taken (masochism, holy service, etc.); Watts gives us healers as slaves in a kingdom run by, apparently, a self-destructive idiot. The core idea is nice, but the actions not fully motivated. I was not convinced that the story would play out as it did; the two healers simply didn't know one another well enough for what takes place at the end to seem like anything but a gimmick.

"Death, Taxes, and Mackerel," by Karen Traviss

This is a wonderfully silly story about a multi-billionaire who is willing to do anything to avoid paying taxes. It isn't very convincing (the lead character hardly seems sharp or forceful enough to accumulate such a fortune), but it works as a sneer towards the IRS, a recognition that people find reason to live in the strangest places, and a series of images worth a smile.

"A Stone for Mr. Crowe" by James Allison

I'm of two minds about "A Stone for Mr. Crowe." On one hand, Allison does a fine job with the emotions in the story. Mr. Crowe, who is seeking a commemorative stone for his dead wife, is not just convincing, he is dignified. His battle against the bureaucracy is a little too easy (in a battle between a loving widower and a static, faceless, bureaucracy, who are you going to root for?), but realistic. The images of him threatening the entire colony's survival, just to honor, have some of the power of Greek tragedies. Since the story is cleanly written, that gives us character, emotions, imagery, and prose; what's left to have a second thought about? The story, and the fantastic element. There is no tension in the story; we know from the moment he's introduced that Mr. Crowe will get his stone, one way or the other. And the fantastic element seems arbitrary; it seems to exist for the sole purpose of allowing those final dramatic images. But what images...

I mentioned early in the review that On Spec has a unified feel to it. If I had to sum that up, I'd say that it is a flagship of soft science fiction. The prose is good throughout, the images striking, the emotions clear, the ethical choices well-considered. Often, though, the stories are barely fantastic, and few are really daring. I'd love to see the magazine keep its good qualities, but stretch things a little further, like Creasey and Kirtley's stories do.

Greg Beatty was most of the way through a PhD in English at the University of Iowa when his advisors agreed that letting him go to Clarion West 2000 would be a good idea. Bad idea. He finished his dissertation, on serial killer novels, then gave up on traditional academia and returned to his original dream of writing fiction. He's had nine stories accepted since September, with acceptances by Ideomancer.com, 3SF, Palace of Reason, Would That It Were, and deathlings.com. Greg's non-fiction appears in Strange Horizons and the New York Review of Science Fiction fairly regularly.