"Precision Set" by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
"The Saturn Ring Blues" by James Van Pelt
"Eleanor Rigby Day" by Chris Turner
"Feng Burger" by John Aegard
"Shelter From the Storm" by Mark Anthony Brennan
"Two Certainties" by E. L. Chen
"Neighbors" by Kate Riedel
"The Z-Burger Simulations" by Hugh A. D. Spencer
"Goodbye, Palindrome Bob" by Steve Mohn
"Foster Child" by Catherine MacLeod
This issue of On Spec offers the usual mix of quality stories. Most are solid, although style trumps substance in a few.
Enhancement, obsolescence, and artifical intelligence converge in "Precision Set" by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. The primary characters (a gymnast whose time has come and gone, and an AI downloaded into the husk of a human body) have each fallen from grace. One has found a sort of peace, and he offers it to the other. The story is quiet, atmospheric, understated.
The rhythms of the Mississippi Delta underlie James Van Pelt's "The Saturn Ring Blues." Virgil and Elinor both race the rings of Saturn. They used to have a thing together, then Elinor moved on. Virgil's been singing the blues ever since, but the race gives them a chance to talk, and maybe some of that old magic remains. The backdrop of the blues enlivens what is otherwise a standard "rescue in space" story.
"Eleanor Rigby Day" by Chris Turner takes an interesting idea but doesn't go anywhere with it. The titular day has been set aside for "all the lonely people," the misfits and the marginal, to go out in public without fear of mockery. The entirety of the story is that an obnoxious store clerk commits a faux pas on the day in question. The characters are sharply drawn, but they don't grow or change, and the final third of the story simply deflates.
"Feng Burger" by John Aegard is an excellent example of a good story that is nearly torpedoed by a weak opening. The underlying metaphor of "chi as cyberspace" opens into a tight little tale about the dangers of Utopia. The final scenes catch the reader like an ice cube sliding down the spine.
A deadly black cloud alters lives in Mark Anthony Brennan's "Shelter From the Storm." Ray and Michael have retreated to a cabin outside Vancouver, but nothing can protect them from a psychic maelstorm swirling through the world beyond. The cloud brings terrifying hallucinations, driving people to murder and suicide; the world has immolated itself. The cloud serves as a metaphor for their stormy relationship as well. Lately, however, Michael has been seeing something new in his hallucinations, something that might lead to a resolution. Though the characters are a bit stereotypical, the story links the inner and outer worlds in the unique way that only speculative fiction affords.
In "Two Certainties," E. L. Chen addresses those twin inevitables, death and taxes. Within the framework of Chinese legend, Chen cleverly shows how one is made to serve the other. A small gem of a story.
Kate Riedel puts a new twist on the Pied Piper legend in "Neighbors." Eleven-year-old Corey is staying with his father, Lije, while his mom is off with her new husband. Though his intentions are good, the irascible and irresponsible Lije isn't much of a dad. Around Lije's apartment live Holly, a jazz clarinetist, and a white-trash family headed by the Bluto-esque Mort. The common area between the apartments is riddled with trash and rats; Corey tries to clear the garbage away while Lije's cat Duke goes after the rats. Mort, the obvious enemy, delights in tearing apart the trash bags and scattering the garbage. At the same time, Holly has turned her eye toward Lije, and eventually she comes to represent a different, more subtle danger. Though Riedel rushes the ending, the story features vivid writing and strong characters.
A bizarre fast-food future forms the backdrop for "The Z-Burger Simulations" by Hugh A. D. Spencer. After a restaurant manager kills herself, her staff is sent for retraining. As the story progresses, the unnamed protagonist goes through ever-more-surreal simulations of fast-food hell. The Z-Burger company and its all-seeing Church are set up as satire, but the story lacks a human connection. The most important elements of the story have the least development.
Jack Kerouac meets the Grateful Dead in Steve Mohn's "Goodbye, Palindrome Bob." A small-time dealer picks up a hippie hitchhiker who directs him to a derelict Kansas farm. The rider claims to be an alien and says the people at the farm will help him get back home. They soon learn otherwise. Even by road-trip standards, the plot of this story is thin. It's more an exercise in style than a work of fiction.
"Foster Child" by Catherine MacLeod opens with an alien baby arriving in Claire Warren's mail. Claire's life is a shambles — miscarriage, a divorce — and tending the baby gives her a chance to ease her way back to the real world. A quiet story, with an uplifting ending.
A writer, reviewer, and teacher of speculative fiction, Jeff Verona lives in the wilds of Iowa with his wife and son. He hopes someday to visit Canada, if only to eat at Tim Horton's.