All Possible Worlds, #1, Spring 2007

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"Save a Dance for the Plowman" by Justin Stanchfield
"Sleep Magic" by Daniel Ausema
"Nithhad: The Lonely Valley" by John N. Baker
"High Concept" by John B. Rosenman
"A Snowball’s Chance" by Kurt Kirchmeier
"Iron Man" by Greg Jenkins
"Penny Royalty for the Pound Mob" by Gene Stewart
"Prizes" by Edward Muller
"The Apocryphist" by Bruce Golden
"Whitening" by Michael A. Pignatella
If you read Justin Stanchfield‘s "Save a Dance for the Plowman" expecting an action story—or even a story where something actually happens—you’re going to be disappointed.  "Save a Dance for the Plowman" is a character-based story and focuses on what doesn’t happen rather than on what does. 
Mark is stuck on plow duty, clearing roads on a backwater little planet called Knum.  A shipful of people is leaving the next day, headed back to Earth and civilization.  Among them is Wendy O’Hearn, a woman Mark has always had a crush on—from a distance.  Now she’s about to leave, while he’s still stuck on Knum.  Most of the story dwells on Mark’s regrets, with occasional dips into his frustration and disgust.  Eventually, Mark’s character arc does come full circle.  He’s changed, as indeed he should be.  But one gets the feeling that this was a personal revelation he could have made without readers coming along for the ride.  "Save a Dance for the Plowman" is a sweet story, but ultimately, it’s hard to care about the character’s dilemma. 
"Sleep Magic" by Daniel Ausema is short but brilliant.  The first two sentences grab your attention, and the rest follows through on their promise.  It’s short, so there’s little that can be said without giving away the entire plot, but trust me, you don’t want to miss this fun little piece. 
"Nithhad: The Lonely Valley" by John N. Baker feels as if it’s trying to be much more than it is.  It weaves together dream worlds, Indian legends, strange creatures, and an orphan boy coming into his heritage but without much success.  The story is a confusion of blended forms, shadowy histories, and a valley Nithhad has never left.  The story gives the impression of trying to be epic but instead comes out a distillation of many different myths and legends.  While the main character was likeable, in the end, he wasn’t interesting enough to make this story compelling. 
John B. Rosenman‘s "High Concept" begins, "One day Herbert Einhorn decided to have an older brother."  That opening sentence sums up the story’s heartwarming zaniness.  Herbert has been given the responsibility of coming up with the perfect ad for Fantastique Skin Lotion.  But with the deadline right around the corner, Herbert is suffering from creativity block.  Convinced he’s a loser, a good-for-nothing who will never amount to anything, Herbert does the only logical thing: he dreams up an older brother who can give him the support and encouragement he so desperately needs.  And this is the perfect touch for what might otherwise have been a ho-hum story about a loser achieving success.  There are no magic formulas, no rituals.  Herbert fantasizes about Robby, the perfect brother.  Then the story seems to ask us why we’re surprised when Robby calls later that evening. 
As Robby guides Herbert into a fuller, more confident life, Herbert tries to convince his family that Robby actually exists.  At first they think he’s crazy.  Herbert is an only child; he always has been.  But Herbert’s certainty eventually convinces them, and the story progresses to a fun and believable climax.  The characterization is excellent, and the story’s plot is delightful.  Well worth the read. 
"A Snowball’s Chance" by Kurt Kirchmeier is another superbly crafted offering.  The characterization really brings this piece to life, and the plot doesn’t lag for a moment.  It speculates upon questions of intelligent design and random chance in a fun examination of a schoolboy named Casey and the universe he creates and the oddly familiar blue and green planet he "people-ates" with large lizards, completely against his school’s rules.  Students aren’t allowed to "people-ate" their worlds until they’re seniors.  If Casey can manage to keep from breaking the rules long enough to become a senior, he won’t have to hide his universes.  When his teacher, Mr. Jennings, gives him an unexpected chance to skip a grade and study with the seniors, Casey is elated.  But starting fresh in a new class means wiping out his current universe.  Does the little blue and green planet have a snowball’s chance?  
This story is easily one of the best in this issue.  The idea of a students who create universes and fill them with dinosaurs on the sly is a fun one, and Casey makes for a believable and understandable hero.  Only the sudden introduction of what might be a pivotal character at the very end marred "A Snowball’s Chance," being a bit too much of a deus ex machina.  Then again, considering the nature of the story, even that might have been intentional.  Well worth the read. 
"Iron Man" by Greg Jenkins is a short-short about an enormous iron man who appears out of nowhere and begins wreaking cartoon-like havoc on the unnamed city and the suburbia outside it.  But the story doesn’t ask the iron man to be believable; it exists only to study the reactions of the Smuck family, who, with the exception of Mrs. Smuck, persist in going about their day as though nothing is happening.  "Iron Man" is a fun little piece.  It doesn’t aspire to be believable, doesn’t pretend to have a plot, and doesn’t seem to aim for more than giving readers a good chuckle.  That’s probably the reason why it works. 
Gene Stewart‘s "Penny Royalty for the Pound Mob" explores the theme of music; what it is, what it’s made of, and what it can do.  The unnamed, first-person narrator works at a dive called the Triode Inn, playing piano and making up melodies.  Through a rough-and-tumble barroom fight that ends up completely vaporizing the saloon, he becomes much more than that; recording star and unlikely decoder of alien languages. 
The story’s largest flaw was its lack of broad worldbuilding.  The details of the world—the rickety stage the narrator’s group plays on, the casual tone of the narrator—are exquisite.  But the big picture is missing.  We come up against the "others," and we learn that "they" claim the "others" can eat souls, but we never learn more than that: what sort of a world is this—a bar on an alien planet?  Earth itself?  And we never get more than tantalizing glimpses of the world outside.  More worldbuilding would have given us ground to stand on.  As it was, I spent most of "Penny Royalty for the Pound Mob" feeling as though I was floating through it.  
In "Prizes" by Edward Muller, Venus is being terraformed into a habitable planet, but it’s a long way from finished.  Wade Tucker is a traffic controller on Aphrodite Station until his ex-girlfriend and Kirk Sterling, the man who stole her away, show up.  They’re in a ship heading straight for the surface, trying to claim the distinction of being the first people to set foot on Venus.  As Wade argues options for stopping them with his superiors, it looks as though they’ll succeed—until an accident puts the ship out of commission and traps the twosome inside.  Now Wade must decide if getting his old girlfriend back is worth the risk of volunteering for a rescue mission.  And if it isn’t—what is? 
While admittedly predictable, this story is nevertheless enjoyable.  Wade’s character is well-drawn and believable, and the quality of the writing makes it worth finishing, even when you know what will happen. 
"The Apocryphist" by Bruce Golden is a strong and compelling story of the art and magic of words.  Siam is a stalker who wishes to avoid the "honorable" life of a warrior.  He also has a fondness for Telsa, a pretty young female stalker with an attractive tailstub.  So, instead of becoming a warrior, he petitions for an apprenticeship with Telsa’s father, the Apocryphist Grrrmon. 
The work is hard and Grrrmon is demanding and unthankful, but as time passes, Siam learns to love the work and words of the Apocryphist’s trade.  He cannot see himself using them as Grrrmon does, however, as lies to catch the ears of kings.  Yet Grrrmon will never approve of Siam’s use of words. 
The worldbuilding and characterization in this story are both strong; although in places the worldbuilding goes a bit overboard.  The story progresses fluidly towards its conclusion, and stays interesting to the end.  Not a brilliant story, but pleasing and enjoyable. 
In "Whitening" by Michael A. Pignatella, we see another loser-becomes-successful character.  This time, the change is brought about by a two-week vacation and a package of Opal Extra White teeth whitener.  When Arnie’s wife goes to take care of her sick aunt for two weeks, Arnie has a chance to try the teeth whitener he ordered on the sly. 
Arnie’s character seems almost as though he is meant to be mentally retarded, although, because the story stays consistently in limited third POV, readers are never explicitly told how other people perceive him.  Instead, we see only what they say and Arnie’s reactions to them.  As for Arnie himself, he is consistently sloppy about his appearance, with the exception of the teeth whitener, and he seems quite content to let his wife tell him how stupid he is. 
As the teeth whitener changes his teeth, however, it also changes the rest of him, although Arnie doesn’t realize that at first.  As the story progresses, he grows gradually more confident in himself and his abilities, until at the end, he is a completely different man—literally.  "Whitening" ends on a slightly darker note than other offerings in this issue of All Possible Worlds.  Nevertheless, it is excellently crafted and worth reading.