Bull Spec #5 — Spring 2011

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Bull Spec #5,  Spring 2011

“Cael’s Continuum” by Preston Grassmann
“Bother” by Rebecca Gomez Farrell
“Hell’s Lottery” by Tim Pratt
“The Coffeemaker’s Passion” by Cat Rambo
“Mortal Passage” by Roger Williams
“Absinthe Fish” by M. David Blake
“The Messengers” by Benjamin Paul

Reviewed by Sherry Decker

“Cael’s Continuum” by Preston Grassmann

Adverbs. Only three caught my eye, so the author doesn’t resort to them like so many writers do.  When I come across adverbs, I grimace and perform verbal gymnastics, trying to reconstruct the line with a powerful verb instead. This time, I didn’t somersault too long because the nostalgia and the mystical tone pulled me onward.

This tale is sad, hopeful and touching. It’s a beautiful, well-described memory of childhood from decades past, and the lost brother that made trains and train tracks so special. The story nudges the fantasy elements by a child’s ability to see tracks where none exist, to see where a train should be. The comparison the author makes between losing his twin brother and experiencing the phantom limb sensation was lovely and bittersweet. This story gave me high hopes for the rest of the issue. I appreciate Grassmann’s gentle, straightforward style and I recommend this story.

“Bother” by Rebecca Gomez Farrell

The first ten paragraphs are in Jonah’s point-of-view (POV). We learn Jonah is happy because he closed a big sale and because he made it home from work without being eaten by a dragon. Without any kind of break or indicator, paragraph eleven now plops us into Susan’s POV, Jonah’s wife. A dragon has taken up residence in their neighborhood and Susan gave up her job to volunteer as a dragon fighter. She considers Jonah a coward because he continues to work, but Jonah sees the necessity for income, food and a roof over their heads. The passion has faded from their marriage. All reasonable ideas for a story, but what we needed here was for the author to choose a character and stay in that character’s POV. Readers don’t need stage direction either: “He walked over to the fridge and opened the door.” If we’re in Jonah’s POV and you describe what’s in the refrigerator, we know he opened the refrigerator door.

My main complaint, this story promised a dragon, at least the illustrations did.  So, I expected a dragon. I wanted a dragon—lots of dragon—dragon scales, dragon breath, dragon eyes, all that dragon paraphernalia. Instead, we have a long description of an apartment in the slums, four short paragraphs where Susan is afraid the dragon has eaten Jonah, two paragraphs where she is relieved Jonah is alive, and finally, two paragraphs of the dragon dozing in the street because he ate someone else. Afterward, we have Jonah and Susan appreciating each other again. This could have been a good story, but the writing is amateurish and I agree with the dragon, it’s time for a snooze.

“Hell’s Lottery” by Tim Pratt

According to this tale, even Lucifer and his demons get bored.  Throughout Eternity, torturing the damned becomes humdrum, even if that’s what one enjoys doing.

Lucifer is clever, however. He wants to stir things up, so he’s devised a new way to torment all those exiled souls trapped in his domain.  He draws a name from a ‘big cylinder’ and the winner returns to earth for two days, and while there, is transported from place to place by a demon, spying on those she left behind. Cosmocrator is the demon transporting the winner back to earth. And as we suspect, a supernatural visit back home, just like in real life, is filled with disappointment.

Nothing unexpected or exciting happens in this story, but the slight, ironic twist ending added a bit of cynical flavor.  Moderate-to-good.

“The Coffeemaker’s Passion” by Cat Rambo

Here’s a character-driven tale about kitchen appliances with pushy, demanding and jealous personalities. Or, is it about someone who works out of a home office and might be hallucinating from all that home-brewed caffeine? No matter.  It was a quick, enjoyable little story, written no doubt, with tongue-in-cheek. Clever.

“Mortal Passage” by Roger Williams

The protagonist, Tom, is in a dire situation after a helicopter crash: he has third degree burns over a hundred percent of his body. (Over a hundred percent?) His arms and legs are gone, and his jaw was ripped away, so he can’t talk. He breathed fire (for a second I thought I found the missing dragon from an earlier story) so Tom’s lungs are mostly gone, but Tom is alive due to the frantic efforts of hospital and emergency aid. Tom is blind, needed kidney transplants and liver regeneration. Whew. The story begins with Tom (using Morse code and what’s left of his jaw) suggesting he’d be better off dead.  Project Director, Adley Franklin convinces him to hang in there. Tom’s wife, Kate was told he died because it’s doubtful he’ll survive.

Many years and a few versions of Tom later, Tom wakes up and realizes something doesn’t feel right. Adley Franklin admits the lab had some unexpected problems (Tom was insane) so they had to terminate the first few attempts to reconstruct him.  He is now more robot than man.  He can see, but unnecessary parts were left out. Tom misses Kate, but not the sex.  Those must have been the unnecessary parts.  

More versions and many more years later, Tom is able to fly a helicopter again, but he has no memory of Kate. Tom has become more analytical and scientific-minded and less concerned about being human.  He is willing to be divided into two Toms to become the helicopter, saving the other version of him in case the split makes him insane again.

More versions and years pass. Now Tom is the helicopter:

“The parts of my mind that weren’t concerned with flying and navigation had been carefully edited away.”

Director Adley Franklin died (I presume of old age) and Tom is controlling the New York City garbage truck fleet. He saves a girl from being assaulted by a scumbag. Scumbag is dropped inside the truck’s giant garbage bin. Once girl is safe inside the cab, Tom tells her how to activate the compactor. This may have been meant to establish robot evolution in the story.  

Tom is no longer alone. There are others like him. Centuries pass. Humans travel to other planets, but the journey is long and dangerous and the fragile humans never survive long enough to return to earth.  Tom has vague memories of being human, and feels a strong sense of melancholy because: “Earth is frozen and there is no more life to preserve.”

Depending on the reader, this is where one will become enthused or lose interest because the story grows ponderous and verbose.  If you like such things this one’s for you.

Tom thinks in terms of centuries and is too logical to be a sympathetic character:

“It took more than fifteen thousand years for our group to coalesce, for us to lay and execute our plans and prepare a few wanderers for the seemingly impossible journey to the Andromeda galaxy. But we were stubborn in our hatred of waste, and our most valuable asset was our amazing velocity, two point one five percent of the speed of slight with respect to Earth at the time of my own launch.”

*   *   *

“I am never alone; presiding over a whole world I have half a billion humans and a similar number of machines to keep me company. But none of those humans and none of those machines is an integrated-personality searcher ship, such as myself. Very few of them even know the secret of our origin which we discovered at the outset of our voyage.”

This story telescoped through so much time, it lost something crucial, something that makes one care about the protagonist and the storyline. After 1,220,000,000 years Tom wakes up human again. Well, one version of him wakes up human. This version of Tom will eventually die a mortal death but he doesn’t seem to care.  

Tom’s character evolved paragraph by paragraph, first losing his humanity and then—wham—Tom’s peers, the god-like robots, have handed his human life back to him. A robot at the culmination explains the reason—it’s a form of compensation they are convinced he deserves. Not my favorite.

“Absinthe Fish” by M. David Blake

“Some have fins, and some do not. Some have scales, and tails, and eyes. It is dark in the alembic. There is no reason for the fish to have eyes. The fish have no comprehension of darkness, so those with eyes keep them rather than plucking them out.”


“The fish don’t analyze whether they are superpositioned or decoherent, and frankly, they don’t give a damn about quantum physics.”

Me neither. I suspect this should have been poetry—poetry doesn’t need a clever excuse for bizarre, unintelligible murkiness. This was a curiosity (at one and a half pages) with an over-load of style, but no real story.

“The Messengers” by Benjamin Paul

This story was a contest winner by a seventh grader. I understood it. I cared about the characters. The prose moved right along. The emotion and sense-of-place was established in the first paragraph and the two central characters were introduced in the second.

Following that, the urgent situation was described, including the objective, patriotism, danger and loyalty.  It was all there.  

I suspect that by the time Benjamin Paul has graduated from high school, he’ll have eliminated amateurish adverbs and the habit of writing ‘could see, could feel, could hear’—all the unnecessary could-do’s (Saw! Felt! Heard!). If so, he’ll be a better writer than 95% of his peers and even some ‘pros.’ Well done, Benjamin Paul.