On Spec, #51, Winter 2002

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"More than Salt" by E.L. Chen
"What Part of 'Forbidden Planet' Did You Not Understand?" by Steve Mohn
"Fox and Otter" by Leslie Brown
"Speak for Yourself, John" by Brandon D. Rabin
"With the Help of Your Good Hands" by Leah Bobet
"Chasing Chickens" by Kate Riedel
"An Instant Remedy" by Holly Phillips
"Yorick" by Catherine MacLeod

The theme for the Winter 2002 issue of On Spec is "O for a muse of fire…Shakespeare 2002." Some of the stories take off directly from various Shakespeare plays, King Lear being most popular, while several others only have a faint connection to any particular play. On the whole, this is a strong issue; perhaps the presence of the Immortal Bard did something.

"More than Salt" by E.L. Chen is the first story here to take inspiration from King Lear. While it is well written with strong characters and makes effective use of its Shakespearean theme, it is only marginally fantastic. When the teenaged narrator is accosted by a drunken old man on the street, she briefly finds herself entangled in King Lear, playing the Fool to the old man's Lear. The man turns out to be Professor Barclay, who descended into madness after his daughter's murder. The narrator's odd encounters with Barclay lead, through various twists and turns, to a revelation about her own family that forces her to face some unpleasant truths. The evolving relationships between the narrator and the other characters are well drawn, and Shakespeare is put to good use.

One does not expect a story entitled "What Part of 'Forbidden Planet' Did You Not Understand?" to be entirely serious, but Steve Mohn's short story is an effective and clever revisionist telling of the classic 1956 movie that set Shakespeare's The Tempest on the distant world of Altair IV. The basic storyline is the same, a human expedition to Altair IV discovering the brilliant Morbius, his lovely daughter Altaira, and their servant Robbie the Robot. Mohn ingeniously chooses to tell the story from Robbie's point of view, and we discover the menacing reality that lurks behind that clumsy and endearing metal exterior.

"Fox and Otter" by Leslie Brown takes a different approach to Shakespeare than the other stories, being set in Elizabethan times rather than taking inspiration from a specific play. Sarah and Emma are young sisters, still unmarried, and fearful of a visit from Queen Elizabeth. They are worried the Queen will choose husbands for them, and to forestall that possibility, they use their dead mother's witchcraft to summon up two "wyrs," spirits animating human forms. They plan to present the wyrs to the Queen as their husbands to be, but their plan goes awry when they learn that Elizabeth's epithet of the "Fairy Queen" is entirely literal. The mixture of the historical Elizabethan and fantastic settings is well done, and the final twist comes as an unexpected but satisfying resolution.

Shakespeare is put to merely tangential use in Brandon D. Rabin's "Speak for Yourself, John," a humorous story of what happens after a "courting robot" (essentially a Valentine that delivers itself) is given an upgrade that allows it to actually feel the love it brings. The story proceeds to its logical conclusion, as the newly emotional robot decides it can no longer serve simply as a courier, and takes matters into its own metal hands. Told as a "Dear John" letter to the robot's former employer, and ending with an obligatory quote from Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, it's well told and short enough not to wear out its welcome.

Leah Bobet deals more directly with Shakespeare in "With the Help of Your Good Hands," a sequel to The Tempest, in which we learn what happened to Ariel after the end of the play. When a young Englishman, Simon Aquitaine O'Neill, comes to the Island of Circe seeking foreknowledge of the fidelity of his lover, he finds Ariel serving as the librarian of the Library of Destiny. We learn of how this library gave Shakespeare his inspiration, and how Ariel came to serve as its guardian. Along the way, Simon discovers that one can, in fact, alter Destiny. The metaphysical questions are mostly sidestepped, but on the whole this is a charming romance.

It's frustrating when a story begins strongly but fails to provide a satisfactory resolution to an intriguing premise. "Chasing Chickens" by Kate Riedel regrettably does just this, as a promising beginning with a mysterious infant and a (quite literally) hen-pecked woman trails off into a poetic but unconvincing reverie. Mina, house-sitting for her daughter, is surprised one day when a two-year-old boy wanders out of nowhere. No one can tell her where the child came from, and as she finds herself becoming unwillingly attached to the boy, she also must confront her dissatisfaction with her life. The story to this point is well written. Mina is strongly drawn and the uncanny situation is presented with a properly convincing simplicity. The climax, however, is unconvincing and arbitrary, not at all an organic part of the story, and Riedel seems to have fallen back on poetry and symbolism in an attempt to provide a suitable ending. The majority of the story is well done; it's unfortunate that the ending is what suffers.

Once again, King Lear is the inspiration, this time for "An Instant Remedy" by Holly Phillips, one of the strongest stories in the issue. Peregrine is the only surviving child of the Duke, heir to her father's position, but father and daughter are locked in a struggle of personalities that is only broken by the unexpected arrival of a stranger bearing the Brand, the mark of a Power's disfavor. Those who bear the Brand cannot be harmed by any mortal, on pain of death, and Peregrine is quick to use this fact to her advantage against the Duke. The arrival of a Power at the end gives Peregrine her freedom, but at what cost is left uncertain. Phillips draws the emotional battlelines with sharp prose, and the moral tension could be cut with a knife. The story is a model of narrative movement.

The issue ends with one of Catherine MacLeod's twenty-six "postcard stories," one for each letter of the alphabet. For "Y" we get "Yorick," a brief but provocative meditation on Yorick's hidden role behind the machinations of Hamlet. It's quite brief, since it was intended to fit on a postcard, but puts an interesting spin on the classic play.