"Baa Humbug" by Dr. Terry Dartnall
"Side Effects" by Jack Wodhams
"To That Which Kills" by Keith Stevenson
"Making a Difference" by Dave Luckett
"Desirée" by Stephen Dedman
"Lady of the Flies" by Rob Hood
"Flashmen" by Terry Dowling
"New Talk" by Richard Harland
Oceans of the Mind continues to expand their boundaries in their Winter 2003 "Australian Writers" issue by introducing a second medium (in addition to PDF format) to deliver their wares upon: audio CD. Paired with their eBook publishing, they seem poised to take advantage of the technology age–suitably apt for a science fiction 'zine.
Delivery format aside, the caliber of stories in this installment is inconsistent, varying from truly excellent to downright painful, even with sense of humor firmly screwed to its sticking place.
"Baa Humbug," a flash fiction piece by Dr. Terry Dartnall, fronts this issue. Based upon a recent series of events in Australia involving the freighter Komo Express, it is a classic confrontation tale of humanity against an encroaching, alien enemy. What moves the story along is the mystery of who or what this challenger for dominion is. As is often the case when posing an intriguing puzzle, the resolution did not manage to meet the high expectations presented by the riddle. I had my sights set on something more sense of wonder inspiring and found myself disappointed at the ending. However, Dartnall did succeed in setting an authentic Australian tone, giving the reader a first person, crash course in Aussie lingo. He forces readers to become immersed in the dusty terrain of rugged outback or face the prospect of being left floundering in an Americentric, suburban worldview. Dartnall also takes a notable crack at a philosophical exploration of the ethics of fundamental non-human rights, an impressive undertaking in less than 500 words.
"Side Effects" by Jack Wodhams starts out clumsily with unimpressive dialogue and weak narrative. There is a preponderance of neophyte writing blunders that make "Side Effects" read poorly, most notably a surfeit of dreaded said-bookisms and several unintentionally (one assumes) humorous word combinations. I found it difficult to look beyond the ungainly prose to the submerged storyline, to whit, the unforeseen behavioral consequences of genetic manipulation. Fortunately, Wodhams takes a light-hearted approach to the subject matter, and on that basis I was able to enjoy the story within the context. But I would have appreciated "Side Effects" more if the humor had sprung primarily from the story instead of the writing. Choice sentences like, "'It's research!' Teri exploded warmly," and "She almost rose from her chair in a spasm of exasperation," vied with comical shortfalls such as luminous male anatomy for the biggest guffaws.
"To That Which Kills" by Keith Stevenson is an archetypal SF colonization story. It's competently written, although there are the occasional rough patches that seem more attributable to a lack of editorial intervention rather than mediocre writing. There is a fragmented feel to this tale punctuated by large skips in time. Although occasionally distracting, this technique does serve to keep the pacing swift and the storyline moving. "To That Which Kills" explores the relevant but unoriginal issue of the needs of a perpetually developing humanity at the cost of the welfare of indigenous life forms. Our intrusion into Stevenson's alien habitat is a mirror of the deforestation and habitat destruction we enact on present-day Earth. While laudable, there's a sledgehammer feel to the message, unalleviated by the central characters: a young visionary passionately defending the endangered species at odds with an older, jaded defender who has allowed time to skew his priorities to a more establishment-friendly stance. I found this story a solid anchor stone in this issue, but unmemorable otherwise.
"Making a Difference" by Dave Luckett is a well written adventure yarn with occasional flashes of brilliance. It begins with an intriguing study of a predatory, alien life form–Fecund Enjoyment–as she studies a human space vessel. In her research, Luckett reveals more about the alien than the space vessel, which is undoubtedly his intent. While beginning with an admirably alien mindset, it quickly becomes obvious that Luckett's alien is based upon an arachnid template. The inevitable switch to a human vantage comes several paragraphs too late to surprise with the revelation of "spider," but the story doesn't suffer for the overzealous foreshadowing. The pacing is excellent, well able to keep a reader's attention despite the switches between alien and human point of view. Fecund's thought processes are enjoyable with her sadistic and unabashedly vicious morality. Conversely, the human characterizations are a touch on the generic side, but perhaps that is the point. "Making a Difference" is a celebration of humanity in its myriad ability to innovate, advance, and evolve. The story blasted its way to an ultimately satisfying, if predictable, conclusion.
"Desirée" by Stephen Dedman begins with the premise: is there a single "perfect partner" for everyone, and if so, could a computer program determine who that is, or better yet, create a virtual simulacrum? Set in a near future Earth where science and technology have advanced enough to ensure straight teeth and flawless vision (but not beauty or perfect health) for those who can afford medical insurance, and where the influence of corporations and software companies have likewise increased to rival governmental power, it is a highly believable backdrop, proto-cyberpunk. The writing is tight, with excellent dialogue and narration. Dedman weaves an emotionally compelling tale with an adept hand, incorporating literary commentary, "lit is about more than that; it's about the way people think," sociological predictions, hard-hitting psychological realities, "I can tell real from fake; I just don't give a fuck," and even some Shakespeare into a poignant tale of love and loneliness. Complex and astute, "Desirée" was easily the best story in this issue. Imminently memorable, it has made me resolve to seek out more of Dedman's work.
"Lady of the Flies" by Rob Hood is a cleanly written take on the theme of redemption from hollow routine and dependability, a relevant matter for those of us who sacrifice our hours to a half-life of corporate obligation. Set within a modern, urban setting, with a splash of time travel to keep things interesting, the storyline is experienced primarily as secondhand accounts–emails and letters–sent to the "sensible" one of a pair of office employees. Because of this, there's a distanced feel to the narrative, a standard story-within-a-story structure. As such, it's not an emotionally connective story, although an engaging one nonetheless. Another solid but unremarkable work in this issue.
"Flashmen" by Terry Dowling is written in true futuristic style, with a society unfamiliar, yet only a few steps away from traditional. The story builds momentum as the characters and setting comes alive via Dowling's brusque future jargon. Reading "Flashmen" is a bit like watching a good Shakespeare play. In the beginning, the readers/theater-goers are acutely aware of the stylized language, but as the tale unfolds, they become so engrossed that the language washes over them and becomes uncontrived, natural. While reading "Flashmen," I found myself absorbed in the cadence, the linguistic rhythm of the story, and became totally rapt in Dowling's cultural protocol in the process. Dowling's characters manage to convey an alienness in this future society, yet maintain their humanity. This story is both dry and elegant, about the nature of heroes, choosing between two terrible options, and the character of enemies and friends. In short, it is about contradictions. A refreshingly original story, thoroughly enjoyable.
This issue wraps up with "New Talk" by Richard Harland, a fascinating take on the nature of communication. Although set on an alien planet, Harland's tribal society is obviously modeled from Neanderthal people in the style of Jean M. Auel. In this manner, Harland obliquely proposes that instead of sign language, early man's communication could have been telepathic. In this culture, language is a source of wealth and trade with true names worth more than descriptions. When space faring visitors descend, silvers as the tribe calls them, the fate of a tribe member is decided when she defies tribal dictates and encounters one of these visitors. This brief meeting results in a seed generating which will take her people to the next step in their evolution. "New Talk" is an interesting and cerebral story, both emotionally and intellectually engaging.
Oceans of the Mind promises to be a first-rate publication, but due to the disproportionate caliber of the stories I found in this issue, I must conclude they have not yet realized this potential.