On Spec, #46, Fall 2001

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

"The Super Man and the Bugout" by Cory Doctorow
"Father's Dragon" by James Van Pelt
"Mediation" by Catherine MacLeod
"Rings Like the Blast of Light" by Vivian Zenari
"Last One" by Holly Phillips
"Waking the Dead" by Robert H. Beer
"Flushed with Success" by Janine Cross
"Snow White Dreams" by Elizabeth Matson
"Nine-Tenths of the Law" by Catherine MacLeod
"The Valeherd" by Lena DeTar
"Green Time" by Steve Mohn

On Spec, published out of Edmonton, Alberta, is a quarterly magazine that is the most firmly-established Canadian SF magazine. The current issue is whole number 46, a pretty impressive total for a smaller press operation. It's a very attractive package, and the fiction is solid if rarely much better than that, and usually quite nicely written.

The submission requirements specify a maximum length of 6000 words, which rubs me the wrong way: SF has traditionally been hospitable to novelettes and novellas, and I like to see markets accommodate longer stories. Much of the best SF has ever been at such lengths. It is certainly worth noting that the story in this issue which flagrantly violates the length limit, Cory Doctorow's "The Super Man and the Bugout", at close to 10,000 words, is also by far the best story. In this piece Doctorow reimagines Superman as Super Man, who instead of being adopted by a WASP-y American family was adopted by a Jewish couple from Toronto. Super Man, or Hershie Abromowicz, is retired from his career helping the Canadian side of U. N. Peacekeeping operations. He has become somewhat radicalized, and participates in antiwar demonstrations, while still trying to prevent crime — which of course includes crimes committed by the police. In this story he also deals with the kvetching of his widowed mother; with the Canadian bureaucracy as embodied by an eager young Minister, who gives him a hard time with the irregular arrangements in place concerning his pension; and with the changes in society and in his role due to the peaceful arrival of the aliens called "bugouts". The story is both very funny, and a portrayal of a quite believable non-human human being.

From the longest story to the shortest pair: Catherine MacLeod contributes two stories she apparently wrote on postcards: about 150 words apiece. "Mediation" takes a sardonic look at future divorce proceedings, and "Nine-Tenths of the Law" is a brief peek at a retiring "ferry person" for a demon zoo. Both are nice uses of the small space available.

James Van Pelt is an impressive newer writer whose stories have been appearing all over the place lately. Here he contributes "Father's Dragon", a short piece about a man with a difficult marriage and a difficult child, recalling his father leaving him when he was young, and the dragon that was his solace at that time. It's a nice little character study, soundly using fantastical material as metaphor.

Vivian Zenari's "Rings Like the Blast of Light" is a stranger story. Set on Thetis, a moon of Saturn, it is told by a doctor who has become pregnant — she claims, by an alien. She is under special care, waiting for her child to be born. We get hints of her strained relationship with her Catholic family, and perhaps a love affair gone wrong with a co-worker — all building towards the birth of her child, who may be rather special. There are a number of interesting elements to this story, but it didn't quite come together for me.

"Last One", by Holly Phillips, tells of a young woman in an unnamed city, driven by a shape-changing "hob" to kill demons who have possessed other people and driven them to murder. The woman wishes to stop — the hob forces her to do one more killing, the "last one" — and this is the story of the pursuit of her last demon. It's nicely, darkly, told, well placed in the mean, dark, streets of a large city. Behind it all looms a fierce sense of ambiguity about who is really the possessed creature in this story.

"Waking the Dead" is a war story: humans are fighting the somewhat insectile "Chitters" for possession of a remote planet. Robert H. Beer tells of Morris Charpentier, a Corporal relegated to the noncombatant "can opener" brigade because of his poor eyesight. There is a nice Sfnal idea buried here, not really central to the story: statis fields that pop up around soldiers when they sustain serious injuries, to give them a chance to survive until after the battle when they can be treated. Charpentier opens one up to find an alien, who has no desire to be a soldier, and over the next few weeks he slowly develops a relationship with the alien, only to have it ended shockingly. This isn't a bad effort, but it's rather minor: there isn't enough new or special here to make it memorable.

From Janine Cross we get "Flushed With Success", a mildly amusing story about Taryn Brock, a scientist trying to establish communications with an alien species amid the interference of politically minded superiors. The problem is that the alien reproductive cycle involves successful males becoming, as a result of their success, eligible for mating, as a result of which they die. Now the male with whom Taryn has been working is regarded as so successful (as a result of his work with Taryn) that his bid day is at hand — and he wants Taryn to, as it were, "officiate" — an honor due to her helping him. But her superior regards that as wholly inappropriate, of course. Cross mixes in Taryn's dealing with her estranged husband, and a silly sort of New Age human author who her boss thinks can persuade the aliens to change their ways. As I said, mildly amusing, a minor story.

Elizabeth Matson's "Snow White Dreams" is a fairy tale retelling, as the title hints. It's very well written, and is a reasonably original take on the source material. Such retellings are a dime a dozen these days, but this is different enough to be worth a look.

"The Valeherd" by Lena DeTar is a decidedly unusual science fiction story set on a planet of Tau Ceti. It tells of another unusual reproductive cycle, this time the cycle of the "valecows", which the protagonist raises for their valuable milk. Her father having just died, she is left alone to deal with the rather violent birthing of a new litter. I felt that this story was a bit too scanty as to detail: I wanted either to learn more about the whole setup with the valeherd and the colony planet, or to have more of a story than what we get, essentially just a vignette. Some interesting ideas here, but just not developed enough.

And, finally, there is "Green Time", by Steve Mohn, probably my second favorite story this issue. "Nedrow" is a man from the future, dropped unceremoniously into Syracuse, New York, a few decades in our future, but a century or so in his past. His duty is to try to meet up with the rest of his team from the future, and to work on a plan (details unknown to him) to alter the past in a provable fashion. But for some reason the rest of the team doesn't contact him until he strikes up a relationship with his psychiatrist, who manages to guess what he really is. The story ends up being a rather sweet look at Ned's eventual accommodation with his new place — there's a subdued message tying time travel to other environmental depredations (hence the title), but that is subordinate to Ned's personal story, which I found affecting.

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the sf and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13.) Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent, as well as to Maelstrom, SF Site, and Locus Online. His home page is at www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.