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

On Spec #97, Summer 2014

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On Spec #97, Summer 2014


Bugzapper” by Mikey Hamm
The Glorious Aerybeth” by Jason Fischer
Handcrafting” by Anita Dolman
Snapshots of American Scenes” by Simon Habegger
Piece of History” by Karl Johanson
Traveller, Take Me” by Kate Heartfield
Empty Heat” by Agnes Cadieux

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

Bugzapper,” by Mikey Hamm, mixes science fiction nerdiness with awkward teen romance. Fifteen-year-old Joshy has had an amazing summer, during which he’s skipped along the surface-tension of his dimension, stopped an army made up of multiple copies of some guy, and fallen in love with a meta-terrestrial princess named Rani, among other things. Joshy is hoping to tell Rani he likes her when she visits his dimension to watch the planar eclipse, but he faces a problem: the park where Rani wants to meet him is overrun by multiple copies of bloodwhips, which are like flying tapeworms that feed on marrow. Joshy recruits his best friend, Doug, to help him—Doug’s job will be to shoot waves of microwave energy at Joshy and Rani in the park, thus zapping any bloodwhips. Joshy also plans to give Rani a special windbreaker in order to protect her from the bug-zapping microwave energy—but he has to give it to her without explaining its real purpose. Of course, not all goes as planned...

This is a cute and entertaining story. Not quite laugh-out-loud funny, but I enjoyed its light-heartedness and never found it annoying, which is so easy when writing for young adults and with characters who have amazing magical or technical abilities and yet have hormone-laden teenage problems like any other teenager. I think that this sort of piece is harder to write than it looks, and I appreciated the end result—the clean, fresh, appropriate writing, the excellent dialogue, and both the buildup and resolution of story.

In “The Glorious Aerybeth,” by Jason Fischer, we are introduced to a universe in which giant planet-killing ships collect sellable fuel from worlds in the form of any life they can digest. Gannet, who normally breeds these ships, is on a punishment detail—so he’s to take charge of the blood-ship The Glorious Aerybeth (named after these beings’ fearsome empress) and make a report about the current world and moon that the ship is anchored between. The ship’s captain tries to lead a mutiny against Gannet, beginning a grim downward spiral marked by much bloodshed.

During my first read-through of this story, I was completely confused. It introduces a race of beings and a sort of technology with little that readers can identify with. During my second read, though, I became engrossed in the intricacies of this world Fischer has built. I wasn’t sure of my interpretation, but I also noted embedded within the story a possible connection to Earth’s future seen from an alien standpoint that I found fascinating.

I did think that the aliens here seemed a bit too much like humans in terms of emotions and behavior, which seemed odd given how physically different they are from humans, but then again if they’d been any more alien I couldn’t have found a place to begin to relate. Overall, a rich story with a protagonist whose character is wonderfully flawed, giving us a glimpse into a xenopsychology as relating to a completely foreign culture.

In “Handcrafting,” by Anita Dolman, George and Sylvie are an old itinerant couple staying in a campground in British Columbia. By all appearances immigrants, Sylvie likes to knit things for her grandchildren, and George likes to look at the stars through his telescope. The two of them enjoy knowledge gained from simple, everyday activities. Soon, we learn that appearances are deceiving; conversations between the two reveal that George and Sylvie are powerful beings who’ve shaped humankind through the centuries and remain as guides to help the human race take steps in positive directions. They disagree about the best approach at times, as can be seen when a young pregnant woman and her no-good husband arrive at the campground. Bleeding-heart Sylvia wants to help the woman, but George prefers to let cases like the young woman’s be.

The basic premise of this story is fairly common—immortals hidden as humble humans, trying to guide their “children” at the same time as letting them have their choices and their lessons. The twist here—although I’m not entirely sure of this—has to do with the old man and woman being representations of the benefits of natural selection vs. helping foster diversity in humanity. So the story presents an anthropomorphized debate about how best to ensure healthy evolution. At least that’s what I think; despite everything spelled out in the George-Sylvia conversations, I remained confused about exactly who the couple were. It’s a competent story, but I felt lukewarm about it—possibly because I didn’t completely “get” it.

Snapshots of American Scenes” by Simon Habegger is a surreal, dreamlike piece, with shifting backdrops behind the existence of a long-lived being named Solrun. Solrun enters the human realm after being carried by the river into an underground cavern where magic brings him (or her) to the edge of an Indiana swamp. He moves to a possibly future New York and lives with a woman named Anna in an abandoned warehouse along the banks of the Hudson. One day they salvage a Roneo from the water, which causes Sol to feel, for the first time, a desire for a sense of purpose, a questioning of their aimless daily existence. Anna’s explanation of why they scavenge and salvage old things is that these “fossils of man” have lost all context, becoming independent, stripped of the meaning they were given as a part of the whole. Anna makes charts of the rubbish, trying to make some unifying theory behind them that links them into a sort of negative of civilization at a point of its decline. Solrun just observes, while Anna is compelled to try to make conclusions. “It’s the worst human failing, concluding things,” she says.

The scene shifts several more times, and more quickly then, as Sol joins a crew on an Antarctic-borne ship, returns to New York City to find that most of the landmarks of his old life there have been washed away, explores Durham and Thermopolis.

This is a thought-provoking, layered piece, structured to reflect the same metaphor that the story deals with—the search for meaning in a meaningless world, and the futility of finding meaning especially when trying to study contextless objects. Our minds automatically try to make meaning out of anything, and we do it with these disconnected pieces of story we’re given of Sol’s life. The desire for meaning is such a driving urge—the safety in drawing conclusions, and in adhering to them beyond sense. Polarizing this against Sol’s sense of timelessness, his longevity, it’s easier to see how none of it means anything or is of any use in the end. Still, we read this story, we build a meaning for it as we read, and that has value—but only in the moment.

This is a well-crafted and thought-provoking piece. It left me feeling melancholy, but I appreciated its depth and its message. I don’t often read pieces that make me, as the reader, feel like my act of reading was included in the author’s writing of the piece—here the reader is both observer and observed, a conscious part of a work of art.

In “Piece of History,” by Karl Johanson, Dave and Terry are on the moon 75 years after the first landing. Dave, who’s unenthused and matter-of-fact about their job retrieving an old thermocouple tube from the the landing site, is heartily annoyed with Terry’s endless excitement over being there. Terry manages to find something then, a “piece of history,” that validates his enthusiasm and Dave’s annoyance.

This is a very short story and quite light-hearted and amusing. It pokes fun at some of the ridiculous things we get excited about, and at how value can be created out of nothing. Dave is the buzz-kill narrator and Terry is the clueless optimist. We all know people like both of them and it’s enjoyable reading about how they get their just desserts—despite Dave’s crotchety attitude.

Traveller, Take Me” by Kate Heartfield is an uncommon sort of ghost story, in which the ghost is there not to give chills but to highlight a portrait of a set of odd characters. It’s 1914, and four prospectors are traveling in Canada on a tip looking for gold. They find a dime-store book left in a log cabin and begin to read it aloud before sleeping, and then strange things begin to happen. A ghost with a gunshot wound, who they surmise died in the war in France, appears every night after they read the book; he’s not frightening, but simply shows up and seems to be reliving happy moments of love and family life. The prospectors observe him each night and reflect upon their own loveless and possibly empty lives.

This pensive, somewhat melancholy story leaves a number of endings untied, but that’s part of its message—the lack of resolution is reflected in the ghost’s untimely death, in the book without an ending, in the narrator’s only sharing the bare bones of what happens to the characters. The way the story is crafted makes it feel complete and appropriate. Still, hints are given that each of these prospectors, dysfunctional and hardened in his or her own way, has an interesting history, and we’re given a glimpse of their psyches through their reactions to the ghost—so I find myself wishing I could know something of their futures as well. So part of me recognizes that it’s a good story, but another part feels as empty and unsatisfied as the prospectors wanting to know what happens to the ghost.

Empty Heat,” by Agnes Cadieux, takes place on a dragon ranch in a future Arizona. Jessie, hired for her expertise in handling particularly female dragons (who won’t respond to male handlers), wakes up to the hatchling barn on fire. The matron dragon in mourning for her lost clutch forces Jessie to face her own deep and constant sense of loss.

The characters in this story are sympathetic, and that includes the animals—the dragons aren’t anthropomorphized, but we see Jessie understanding her own pain better through seeing the similarities between the dragons’ experience and that of humans. Jessie has the makings of a marvelous heroine—deeply scarred, yet strong and resourceful. The matron dragon would also make an excellent supporting character. I enjoyed the mix of dragon breeding with Southwestern ranch life and would love to read a novel version that includes this setting and these characters.