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

On Spec, #42, Fall 2000

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"Wrong Dreaming" by Kain Massin
"A Killer of Men" by Siobhan Carroll
"Getting Pissed With the Minotaur" by R. W. C. Sylvester
"Jack Be Nimble" by Carl Sieber
"Diva" by Lisa Carreiro
"The Wedding" by Wilma Kenny
"Io You" by Shawn Brayman
"Cowboy Bill" by James Keenan
"Prize" by Elizabeth Westbrook
"Devil, Devil" by Edward Hoornaert
"Preserving the Species" by Leslie Brown
"Tempus Fugitive" by Hayden Trenholm
"Not Plowed or Sanded in Winter" by Steve Mohn
"Just a Passenger" by Robyn Herrington
"Postcard Fiction: 'Alphabetia'" by Catherine MacLeod
"Bulk Food" by Laurie Channer & Peter Watts
"The Fundamental Unit of Memory" by Cory Doctorow
"Last Call" by Derryl Murphy

This double-sized issue of On Spec contains fiction from the 14(!) winners of their short story contest, followed by a handful of traditional pieces. For this review, the last shall be first.

Catherine MacLeod's "Postcard Fiction" consists of a scattering of short-shorts based on letters of the alphabet (e.g. "Believing", "Equity"). Each depicts a brief emotional moment, and all are tinged with horror.

Laurie Channer and Peter Watts cast a jaundiced eye on interspecies communication in "Bulk Food." Ever since the Breakthrough, humans have been able to speak with cetaceans, particularly killer whales. Orcan society is divided into Residents, who eat only fish, and Transients, who eat seals and other mammals. Environmentalists champion the former and hate the latter, but the less scrupulous elements of human society find kindred spirits among the Transients. Both sides want fresh meat, and both are willing to cut a deal. The presence of a character who's simply a frame for exposition detracts from the story, but on the whole it's sardonic good fun.

"The Fundamental Unit of Memory" by Cory Doctorow considers the effects of addiction to Recollection, a drug that serves a user's memories back to him. Sonya is a Recollection junkie with an odd relationship to the protagonist, Jimmy. To use the popular parlance, Jimmy is an enabler. He keeps Sonya alive and tolerates her addiction. In return, she treats him like a favorite brother, giving him just enough affection to keep him around. When Sonya's mother finally has enough and takes matters into her own hands, Jimmy has to find a new source of comfort. Doctorow shows that addiction comes in many forms, and his depiction of two people down on their luck in a future Toronto is convincing.

A doomed astronaut's final conversation with his wife is the subject of Derryl Murphy's "Last Call." The premise seems a bit calculated, like a writing exercise, but the execution is solid.

The contest winners are a decidedly mixed bag. As is often the case with apprentice fiction, the stories are mostly first person, and they recycle a number of familiar speculative themes. Most of the stories invoke a formula. In "Io You" by Shawn Brayman, it's clumsy space opera. "Cowboy Bill" by James Keenan offers up an Outer Limits-style future where everyone is slaved to robotic guides, and a discontented worker searches for freedom. Elizabeth Westbrook's "Prize" revives the old chestnut of restoring a post-apocalyptic world. In "Preserving the Species," Leslie Brown builds a future where humans are a protected species in an alien-dominated universe, with human children fetching a high price on the black market, and shapes it into a standard police story. The obligatory time-travel piece is "Devil, Devil" by Edward Hoornaert. The titular devil is in fact a Voice, a time traveler who projects his consciousness into inhabitants of the past. Of course he's prohibited from changing the past, but of course he does. Branson Twist, jazz musician, brings down an alien invasion after it destroys the Earth in Hayden Trenholm's "Tempus Fugitive," but the voicing of the protagonist is inconsistent -- part OG rapper, part Harvard graduate.

Several of the stories have neither glaring weaknesses nor obvious strengths. The first place winner, "Wrong Dreaming" by Kain Massin, is a "man messes with magic he doesn't understand" story filtered through an Aboriginal worldview. The exotic culture can't mask run-of-the-mill execution, however. In "Getting Pissed With the Minotaur," R. W. C. Sylvester does a riff on the Greek legend, with Theseus getting drunk with the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Unfortunately, the story is rather too pleased with itself. "Jack Be Nimble" by Carl Sieber, the story of a Jack (a "ripper" able to shred space-time and send people through) is all surface; the protagonist learns to control his power in broad strokes. Steve Mohn envisions Dracula as a withered old bum in the boondocks of Canada in "Not Plowed or Sanded in Winter," which is more atmosphere than story. "Diva" by Lisa Carreiro is curiously flat. On what could be the planet Tattoine, the title character ponders whether to join her nomadic relatives. Robyn Herrington displays a quirky touch in "Just a Passenger," where alien abductors get more than they bargained for when they pick up a serial killer, but the story employs the wrong protagonist.

Two pieces, both fantasy, wed good writing to a good theme. "A Killer of Men" by Siobhan Carroll portrays vampires as sirens, luring humans to their death with memories and dreams. In one brief interlude, a young vampire and a young human both learn about loss. Wilma Kenny's "The Wedding" is a fairy tale wherein a new bride proclaims that she'd dance with the Devil himself if he came to the wedding -- and that Gentleman appears. Simple but skillfully executed.

On Spec continues to be a good bargain, but it would be better served by splitting up such a contest over several issues.

A writer, reviewer, and teacher of speculative fiction, Jeff Verona lives in the wilds of Iowa with his wife and son.