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

On Spec, #68, Spring 2007

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"Stop Plate Tectonics" by Robert Weston
"The Other Side" by D. T. Mitenko
"Made" by Paul Hosek
"Making Light" by Allen Weiss
"A Day Without Kings" by Adam La Rusic
"Old People and Dogs: A Death in the Desert" by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
"Why the Poets Were Banned from the City" by Jerome Stueart

The Spring 2007 issue of On Spec opens with a strong story. “Stop Plate Tectonics” by Robert Weston begins with the matter-of-fact presence of two Hindu gods on a college campus outside the office window of the protagonist.  There’s a whimsy to this—and to some of the aspects of how the story is told—that balances out some of the darker aspects of the story nicely.  I’ll admit to being a bit worried at one point, because the story is, after all, about a middle-aged male professor going through a tough time.  And there’s even a female graduate student who, it seems, is primed to develop into the inappropriate romantic interest, often elements of cringe-inducing wish fulfillment stories.  But Weston shatters those fears.

Part of how he makes the story work is in the telling—brief chapterlets that build the story from multiple angles until it comes clear, managing to make the backstory and the interludes on philosophy (especially about the existence of Ganesha) as engaging as the principle storyline.  And part of it is the science-fictional component, that plate tectonics release a particular frequency of electromagnetic energy that certain people are susceptible to.  It makes for an intriguing and circular story that’s well worth reading.

Much more straightforward, “The Other Side” by D. T. Mitenko is an SF thriller about a specially trained member of a resistance group on the run.  The backdrop to the story is a future where aliens have introduced something called the Fundament, which they imprint on people to make their desires be those the aliens prefer.  This Fundament is entrenched, and the resistance seemingly small.  Added to the mix is the ability that technology has to scan a person and make a complete doppelganger, which is what the narrator realizes has happened to him.  So before his doppelganger can uncover the rest of the resistance, he must act.

The story plays with some fascinating concepts—both the nature of society controlling our wants and in the technology used to scan a person.  And the writing is solid—appropriately quick-paced for the tale.  What keeps it from being a great story is simply that it doesn’t seem to do much with any of these ideas.  It uses them well enough to be an enjoyable story, but it doesn’t rise above that.

“Made” by Paul Hosek is contemporary science fiction that takes as its premise the existence of certain people who are able to compel (or Make) people to obey them.  The narrator is a special ops agent tracking down a particularly powerful one of these Makers.  It begins with her on a plane as she’s about to finally corner him and explains about the Makers and about the narrator’s history through flashbacks.

Again we have an intriguing concept, and this story goes into deeper exploration of multiple layers of control—the Makers, the government, other forces.  It has a rather grim ending that manages to be satisfying in some ways, disappointing in others, but in all, it’s a good story.

According to the notes in the magazine, “Making Light” by Allen Weiss is a sequel to an earlier story that also appeared in On Spec (“The Missing Word” in Summer 2001).  This fact could explain why the opening of the story was difficult to get into.  But after that, it becomes a good story, one that draws on Jewish culture and mythology.  It tells of Eliezer ben Avraham, a man cursed for poking too deeply into God’s secrets so that he must wander about doing good deeds.  Yes, of course, this draws on the legends of the Wandering Jew, though pulled away from the typical Christian explanation of how it happened.

While wandering an uninhabited land just before solstice, Eliezer and his talking horse come across a giant menorah with only one candle.  An old man, the keeper of the menorah, tells him he must fill the other eight spots with candles and light one each day from the center candle.  And so his task, which has a good deal of humor, fills up the rest of the story as he attempts to create and light impossibly big candles.  It’s an enjoyable story that doesn’t require great familiarity with Jewish faith and culture to enjoy, though some knowledge does enrich it—and like Weston’s story, circular in its ending as the seasons change with the solstice.

Its one flaw is in the nature of the keeper, an old man who knows more than he’s willing to tell Eliezer about what Eliezer needs to do.  It’s a trope that’s overplayed in fantasy and detracts somewhat from the story.  But otherwise a very enjoyable tale.

“A Day Without Kings” by Adam La Rusic takes as its concept the idea of a weapon that can specifically target any particular individual from satellites.  In 2026, a maverick scientist sneaks such a weapon into orbit, piggybacking on an official satellite, and then posts the specs for it on the Internet for any country to use.  It results in every country targeting the leaders of their enemy countries, hence the title of the story.

This is really backdrop, though, to the humor as a low-level bureaucrat rises to a position of authority when all he wants to do is get additional staples for his office.  He’s a great narrator with enough self-deprecating humor to engage the reader—“my improbably long title had the word ‘assistant’ in it twice.”  It’s a funny story, but it seems to rest in an awkward place; by the end, I wished La Rusic had either pushed the humor a bit farther over the top or else reined it in a little and explored the effect of the weapon in more depth.

“Old People and Dogs: A Death in the Desert” by Jennifer Rachel Baumer is a mythic story set in a contemporary American West, a story of bikers and a goddess, spears and swords, and development.  Cassie, the protagonist, first sees the spear-carrying bikers as they appear out of nowhere, and she cruises on her own bike to follow them.  Following them leads her back to the squatters in a supposed ghost town that are a sort of family for her.  There she learns that developers are threatening to drive the squatters from their homes.

The central question of the story is: what is the nature of progress?  It pulls classical names for the bikers, the goddess Athena, a developer who isn’t purely human, and a squatter who quotes famous literature into a strange and fascinating story that doesn’t try to answer questions so much as present them.

The issue closes with another strong story, “Why the Poets Were Banned from the City” by Jerome Stueart.  The story imagines a future republic where emotions are strictly controlled by drugs.  Literature, therefore, is banned, and writers are forced to use their skills at evoking particular emotions for ad copy.  In the Outskirts, those writers are segregated and allowed to discuss literature and even share it among themselves as long as it doesn’t get back to the Republic.

When a father finds that his daughter has committed suicide with a line from a poem (by Emily Dickinson) clutched in her hand, he seeks out those writers for revenge.  On top of creating an intriguing and disturbing future, the story is full of questions and musings on the nature and power of stories.  The narrator and his fellow writers believe that the father is unable to understand his emotions because he hasn’t read enough stories to put them in context.  And the narrator continually references the works each of the other writers in his group has created in the aftermath of the father’s arrival to make sense of it, debating his motivations, his character.  Each of these writers, of course, tells it differently with a different emphasis, influenced by their own preferred genres.  And like two of the other stories here, this has a circular ending as the narrator decides he must also write down the story as he understands it to make sense of what has happened.

It’s a powerful look at the nature and strength of stories, and of literature in general, both the reading and the writing of it.