On Spec, #60, Spring 2005

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Image"Apex Predator" by Kevin Cockle
"Taste of Life" by Paul Bartel
"Because We Hear Voices" by John Bowker
"Festival" by Fiona Heath
"When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Justin Stanchfield
"Cerenkov Blue" by Ernie Reimer
"Do No Harm" by Brian E. Moore
"Yuhana Am" by David Redd
"Quilt Cirq" by Susan Urbanek Linville

"Spring in the Shadows" by Gordon C. McRae

The previous Addiction-themed issue of On Spec generated "far too many [excellent submissions] for just one issue."  So the Spring 2005 offering contains five stories with addiction themes and five other selections.  The combination is entertaining.

The issue jumps right into a tale of mystery and legend with "Apex Predator" by Kevin Cockle.  Scott Pendergast meets Dr. Stewart in a seaside park in Victoria to recount his involvement with Lindsey Reed.  The woman’s body was found on China Beach the previous week.  Scott and Lindsey worked together at an investment firm until they took an evening cruise on a gambling boat.  That night, she fell overboard, but when Scott jumped in after her, the two disappeared for a year.  Scott claims that because of the boat’s proximity to Haida Island totems, the two of them became bullsharks and spent the year as predators of the sea.  Cockle examines the similarities of the two predators of land and sea, from the endless need to feed and swim for prey to the cutthroat nature of investment brokering.  Scott and Lindsey become one with their true nature, but when faced with her humanity once more, Lindsey seeks the ocean.  Though the "unbelievable event" premise appears in countless speculative plots, Cockle plaits a plausible earthy and ancient thread throughout.

A spiritual monster follows Captain Franklin’s northern expedition in Paul Bartel’s "Taste of Life."   The men trapped on the ice reek of desperation from "living on top of each other, dreaming of release and a return to the green lands of home."  The creature preys on their minds, one by one, convincing them to eat each other or risk death.  The desolate and mind-numbing environment is captured wonderfully by Bartel, through the eyes of an other-worldly creature.  And though the beast shapes the minds of his prey, they in turn educate it on their ways.

John Bowker‘s "Because We Hear Voices" follows Daniel’s journey of grief after the loss of his wife.  At the post-funeral party, Daniel still wears the electronic apparatus that his wife Sonya invented; a device that connected him to her biomechanical impulses thus allowing him to live her life through sights, sounds, and smells implanted in his brain.  Through flashbacks, Bowker recounts the couple’s courtship and the conception and birth of their daughter, Allison.  The void in Daniel’s core renders him incapable of connecting with or even holding his child.  As the story nears the climax, he must piece together his fractured soul to search for a path to Allison.  Each scene hums with Daniel’s anguish and isolation, capturing the overwhelming loss of a mate with honesty and beauty.

A celebration of the solstice is the central focus of Fiona Heath‘s "Festival."  Meren finds herself in a van full of pagans, all heading to the festival.  She tagged along to follow Liam, a man with hands so beautiful that she now pursues him everywhere.  The van heads for MacGregor Point Provincial Park, a location just north of the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant which recently had an environment-destroying meltdown.  The purpose of the celebration is to heal the earth.  With the help of the other pagans, Meren dresses as a blue jay and while dancing she becomes one with the environment.  Heath mixes an environmental message with the flighty desires of the young—lust, innocence, and idealism—creating a potpourri of hope and vitality for a devastated future.

"When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Justin Stanchfield offers the hardest science fiction edge to the issue.  Sergeant Jake Holland is trapped in a hospital facility where he and his two surviving crewmates are endlessly studied to determine the aftereffects of their encounter with a sentient black hole.  At night, they vanish from the facility, leaving the staff wondering how they are able to come and go at whim.  Time is the element of intrigue in this tale, as time has no meaning at the center of the vortex.  Ten minutes can last six years and the past, present, and future are merely doorways along a corridor.  When Jake’s superior, Lieutenant Ty Vernier, falls apart from the strain of the mission, Jake is faced with a difficult choice whose resolution provides the touching climax of the story.  Stanchfield adds layers of emotional depth to the conundrum of a black hole’s heart.

Ernie Reimer‘s "Cerenkov Blue" journeys to a future where people visit a realbody spa called La Perla to disconnect from the plex and experience the limitations of their human bodies.  An employee at La Perla, Nicole Weston, becomes involved with guest Boris Kozlov.  As he gains confidence and coordination with his real body, the two chat and learn of each others’ pasts.  Boris designs nuclear reactors.  After he returns to the plex, Nicole travels to the nearby town of Sozopol in realbody where she dates Boris, in proxybody.  He takes her to the reactor core that he visited as a child, showing her not only its beauty but also its horrors.  She runs back to La Perla in shock, unwilling to meet with Boris any longer.  Refusing to let her go, Boris returns in realbody to confront her fears and rekindle their affections.  Reimer inspects the virtual world, analyzing what it means to be human, what we view as reality, and whether or not our flesh is a necessary aspect of self.  As the story moves ahead, the fragility of a person—from body, to soul, to the choices one makes—is summarized with care and compassion. 

Written from the point of view of a street person, "Do No Harm" by Brian E. Moore details a harsh life with barely a wisp of hope.  Johnny sits at his usual location, with his money cup and his own rules.  The city has been cleaned up, so much so that coffee is a banned substance and all drug users are now cured by "the pack."  A slick businessman named Mundy comes down from his office tower to confront Johnny, and convince the city’s last remaining blemish to strap on the latest new version of the pack.  The new one, "provides only the amount of stimulation that you need—a fine balance of all the chemicals."  The story’s main theme is choice; just as a person can choose to survive outside, so can he choose how to cope with his addictions.  Though Moore never names the city outright, he paints a stunningly accurate picture of Toronto and the people who call it home.  The story brings few new thoughts to the enigma of drug dependency, yet it nails Johnny’s character with immaculate detail.

"Yuhana Am" by David Redd is the most existential and philosophical story in the issue.  At the age of five, Yuhana loses a finger in a turbine at her father’s workplace.  The girl’s thoughts center on the problem of "Schrödinger’s cat—a theoretical puzzle, in which a cat and a lethal device are hidden away in a box, and from then on the cat cannot be known to be alive or dead.  The continued life of the cat is a matter of probability, not fact."  The story progresses through Yuhana’s struggle to make sense of her own existence, her "Amness," and whether or not it is dependent on observation, wholeness, or some other factor yet undiscovered.  The essence of life has been examined many times in speculative fiction, but this story animates one lonely girl’s struggle to unravel the age-old question with logic and intelligent assessment.

Susan Urbanek Linville provides the most teen-centric story with "Quilt Cirq."  Bet is the misunderstood teenager, with an absent father who signed up for a trip to Mars and won’t return for six years, and a mother who has "let herself go" since her husband’s departure.   A modern girl, Bet frequents the Cirq to "troll with the chicks"—her Christian friends.  At the club, she enters the competition on the Saints side, casting her VERT persona onto the dance floor to improve her popularity ranking.  As she and her friends become entangled in this neo-religious cult, her mother is home threading chips into a quilt that will preserve the soul of Bert, an ailing friend.  Linville takes faith in a new direction, giving Christianity an impulsive and rebellious bent in a world where souls are scientifically captured for posterity.  The clever use of revered phrases bent into teenage slang adds an appeal to the young readers of genre fiction.

The final story, "Spring in the Shadows" by Gordon C. McRae, is an exceptional and poignant view of a broken woman’s failed life.  At the start, Jane has been dry for sixteen days but after attempting to contact her mother, she falls back into damaging habits.  Interspersed between scenes of Jane’s misguided life are images of another world where trees are manufactured with human hands and "everything [smells] like Christmas."  It is the juxtaposition of the two worlds, one of creation and promise and one of destruction and misery, that breathes the emotional heart into this story.  Though the protagonist’s life is depicted as irrecoverably broken, McRae finds a way to end the piece on a note of hope, the elusive tease that never ventures into a life like Jane’s.

Overall, the issue has moments of insight, despair, satisfaction, and regret.  Each story possesses a spark of magnitude, but my favorites are John Bowker‘s "Because We Hear Voices," Ernie Reimer‘s "Cerenkov Blue," and Gordon C. McRae‘s "Spring in the Shadows" all for their exceptional clarity of character and emotion.