"Imprint" by John Park
"'Sthetics" by Marc Brutschy
"Beauty to the Beholder" by Susan Urbanek Linville
"Kid Brother" by Kate Riedel
"Soul Taster" by Ken Rand
"The Gathering" by Michael Dewey
"Suit Man" by David K. Yeh
"Chocolate Kings" by Karen Traviss
"A Gift for Michael Mooney" by Jancis M. Andrews
The biographical note for John Park, author of "Imprint," at the back of the issue claims that his story "began life over a decade ago, as a cyberpunk parody, which helps explain how well he is known as a writer of comedy." Unfortunately, this is virtually the only indication that this story is intended to be read as parody, rather than pastiche. Setting aside the seeming unfruitfulness of a cyberpunk parody published nearly twenty years after the publication of Neuromancer, it is unclear exactly which elements of "Imprint" are intended to be parody. The story shares many of the tropes that were lifted wholesale from William Gibson's novel and used as interchangeable pieces in a raft of forgettable stories, graphic novels, computer games, and role-playing games: bio-enhanced mercenaries, an underworld of sleazy criminals, a near-nihilistic yet still romantic hero, a lot of rainy, dank streets. The story is competently written, but there just does not seem to be much point to it all.
Marc Brutschy's "'Sthetics" is a brief, humorous story narrated by a man's prosthetic eye, whose arrogance is punctured after an accident. It's purely for humor, but the tone nicely conveys the eye's prideful attitude and the comeuppance it receives at the end.
While Susan Urbanek Linville's "Beauty to the Beholder" offers an interesting setting, a sympathetic protagonist, and some fine descriptive prose, the story fails to take hold of the reader and convince us of its reality. Beneath the surface, one can always sense the engine of the story chugging along mechanically, moving us through each of the plot points and delivering us right on time to the conclusion. Makisha Douglas is a human sent to contact the Cephals, an alien race who pattern their lives according to the visions of the Beauty, a prophetess. When the Beauty has a vision of the extinction of the Cephal race, Makisha must combat their fatalism if she wants to save her alien friends. The story is just a bit too neat in how it ties all of its pieces together, and lacks the sense of disorder, of contingency, that tends to animate the best fiction.
Kate Riedel's "Kid Brother" makes effective use of its setting in the 1930s world of hoboes and orphans, but the plot is at times confusing and the characters never surprise us. The narrator, Bill, is looking for food and work and meets up with Kid, an orphan who has run away from his uncle's farm. Gradually we learn that the weather does strange things when Kid is around. The two of them keep running into Liza, who seems to know Kid, and then there is a fire, and an old man. I found the ending difficult to decipher, and I did not know if the ambiguity was intentional or clarity had escaped my grasp.
Torture, theocracy, executions, sandals: we must be in the land of sword and sorcery. Ken Rand's "Soul Taster" is an amusing piece of dark-tinged sword and sorcery, and while the final twist is entirely telegraphed, it still satisfies. Elias is a "soul taster," able to detect sin in the blood of others, and his talents are employed by King Nathan the Just to weed out heretics and servants of the hated Ovegod Jeter, the Evil One. When a desperate prisoner tries to save his life by claiming that the soul of Jeter himself dwells in the body of a fellow prisoner, Elias' skill is put to the test. The actual location of the Evil One's soul will not surprise anyone, but Rand gives the stock setting some depth and shows a deft hand with dialogue.
Michael Dewey's "The Gathering" takes a disturbingly cheerful approach to a story about planting your Aunt Maggie in the garden. Ted Harrison is a hard-working accountant, sent out to his Aunt Maggie's farm by his mother to secure a place in Maggie's will. He loathes the trips at first, but slowly learns to love his aunt, spurred on by shocking revelations about his mother. I didn't find Ted's transformation entirely convincing, in part because his initial character was itself not terribly credible, but the offbeat tone of the story and the matter-of-fact manner in which Maggie's gardening secrets were treated appealed to me.
"Suit Man" by David K. Yeh has an interesting premise, but the ending flails away into abstraction rather than giving us the concrete resolution needed. Bioengineered "dance suits" that jack into the wearer's nervous system, allowing them to create spectacular visual effects on the dance floor, are all the rage, and Matt, our hero, is a top dancer. Too poor to afford a brand new suit, he buys a used Wachowski Model Nine, whose previous owner was murdered while wearing it. On his first trip out, the suit does strange things, seemingly reliving the death of its former owner. The story then takes a strange step into a rather nebulous epiphany, and the mild rigor of the initial premise dissolves into wish-fulfilment.
I've got a soft spot for stories set in alternate worlds where the great Mesoamerican civilizations never collapsed, so Karen Traviss' "Chocolate Kings" started off on the right foot. I was entertained, but a bit disappointed that the setting served as little more than props and stage dressing for a standard-issue police procedural. In the Aztec Empire, chocolate is gold, and when backwater Europeans find a way to produce counterfeit chocolate, Sergeant Ahuatl sees an opportunity to crack the case and get that inspector's badge he so badly wants. He comes up with a plan to stop the black market chocolate, gets his badge, and goes out for a drink. Diverting enough, but I was hoping for more.
This issue of On Spec ends well, with Jancis M. Andrews' well-written fantasy "A Gift for Michael Mooney." We begin in cliche, Michael Mooney being a standard-issue overworked and neurotic modern man trapped in a hated job and a loveless marriage, but after he sees a gigantic glowing horse rise from the water of the Strait, events become less expected. Michael's wife Joan and his boss Hansen do not escape their respective central casting origins as shrew and taskmaster, but Andrews does a good job of using Michael's changing perceptions to give them a bit of life. The climactic passage teeters on the edge of purple prose, but on the whole Andrews controls the rhythms of his prose and gives us a legitimate sense of resolution, of passage, that leaves us satisfied.