On Spec, #43, Winter 2000/2001

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"Freeze Damage" by Scott Mackay
"Winter and Construction" by E. L. Chen
"Johnny B" by Phil Voyd
"Blind Faith" by Michael Vance
"With Pennies For Her Eyes" by David William McKay
"Mason's Ladder" by Thomas Claburn
"Balkan Star" by D. Peter MacLeod
"Learning to Mind" by Terry Hayman
"Guardian" by Melinda Hsu
"To the Maxi-Blender 3000" by Mary Soon Lee
"Good Bones," "Home," "Idle Hands" by Catherine MacLeod

A theme of loss and recovery underlies many of the stories in this issue of On Spec. Some are tragic, while others offer a hope of renewal.

The issue features three more installments in Catherine MacLeod's series of "Alphabetia" ultra-shorts. The beauty industry's obsession with waifish models reaches its logical conclusion in "Good Bones." A play on words informs "Home." Finally, the devil comes up with a labor-saving device in "Idle Hands."

Recovering a loss is the theme of "Freeze Damage" by Scott Mackay. Guy Baumgartner awakens from cryogenic suspension to find his mind and body damaged by the long sleep. Formerly a great pianist, he struggles to regain his skills and to understand the cold, vicious man he was two centuries ago. The mechanics of the plot are predictable (reminiscent of the film Regarding Henry), but the characters are strong, and Guy's eventual epiphany is warranted.

A writer confronts his personal demon in E. L. Chen's "Winter and Construction." Seth Cohen's debut novel was a success, but he's been blocked from completing another. His self-absorption drove his mentally fragile wife to suicide, and now her ghost torments him. The title describes the "two seasons" of the year in Canada, and as the story unfolds Seth gradually moves from one to the other. The internal divisions of the story are an unnecessary gimmick, but the writing is solid and direct.

The titular "Johnny B" in Phil Voyd's story is mediocre at everything but "shinny," a kind of outdoor hockey. He's the best player around–until a mysterious stranger appears at the rink. When the stranger shows Johnny up, he strikes back. Then things get really odd, as the stranger?s #66 jersey suddenly adds another digit. Voyd does a good job with a standard trope, but rather than concluding, the story merely ends.

An elderly woman discovers a long-denied joy in "Blind Faith" by Michael Vance. Faith Williams has lived an utterly pragmatic life, loving no one and believing nothing. Her polar opposite at the nursing home where they both live is Richard Hughes, a vaudeville magician who mourns her withered life. A psychologist at the nursing home suggests that Faith see a few movies to spark her imagination, then becomes alarmed when she claims that she was visited at the theater by Jinx, a goat-hooved satyr. Has Faith witnessed a miracle? Or is a different sort of magic at work here? Vance weaves his characters into a moving human story.

In "With Pennies For Her Eyes," David William McKay addresses the problem of extended mortality. Homer and his companions are the first of the truly aged, now at the end of their extended lives. Some, like Hephaestos, use sarcasm to cover their rage and fear; others, like Cassie, draw as much as they can from their remaining days. McKay's theme is that although the basic existential riddle–death–may be delayed, it cannot be ignored. Homer learns that even at its outer bound life may still be lived.

The titular object in "Mason's Ladder" by Thomas Claburn was built by Mason Rauch himself , out of an old oak tree that grew in a graveyard. One night Mason's ladder sprouts roots and grows up into the clouds, Jack-In-The-Beanstalk style. Mason starts up the ladder but turns back, fearing for his sick wife. The townsfolk come, word spreads, and Mason eventually climbs the ladder again. An odd little story that never really comes to life, despite its creative take on what really happened to the battleship Maine.

"Balkan Star" by D. Peter MacLeod is a clumsy story that takes the old chestnut of an asteroid impact and sets it in the war in the Balkans. The characters here take a backseat to stodgy exposition and a heavy-handed theme.

Skinnerism runs amok in "Learning to Mind" by Terry Hayman. Young Sergei Paloff is a typically rambunctious boy, but the repressive society he lives in demands that children be trained to obey. His mother, Rinsa, detests the conditioning devices (implanted electrodes that punish and reward), but she fears losing her son more. The story deals in strong emotions, but they aren't earned honestly. The all-powerful government that insists on the conditions is an unrealistic bogeyman, and the story manipulates rather than inspires the reader.

More honestly earned are the emotions in Melinda Hsu's "Guardian." A spacecraft collision orphans three children from two different families. A robot, Helper, also survives, but it is badly damaged. Though not designed to care for children, Helper copes as best it can. It counts on the children to help out, only to discover too late that children can't care for themselves, and neither can it. The conflicts between the children are expertly developed.

Mary Soon Lee's "To the Maxi-Blender 3000" snappily tells the story of an infatuated robot. Lee makes the short-short sparkle by presenting a familiar emotion in an unusual context.

On Spec remains a good value, though it could be more consistent. Flawed stories are tossed together with stronger ones, making each issue something of a roller-coaster ride.

A writer, reviewer, and teacher of speculative fiction, Jeff Verona lives in the wilds of Iowa with his wife and son.