On Spec, #63, Winter 2005

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"Memories of the Dead Man" by Douglas Smith
"Ice Cream Doors" by Alan R. Barclay
"Los Empujadores Furiosos" by Elizabeth Bear
"The Smell of the Earth" by Joan L. Savage
"Playing Games" by Susan Forest
"Blues in the Shadows" by Bruce Barber
"Following Darkness Like a Dream" by Lesley D. Livingston
"Metis" by Leah Bobet
"Ticker Hounds" by Shawn Peters
Issue #63 of this great little Canadian magazine, On Spec, opens strongly with Douglas Smith‘s "Memories of the Dead Man," which would make a great movie, being that it’s a unique, post-apocalyptic blend of The Road Warrior and X-Men.
Mary and her son, Jase, live in a world transformed by plague and a mysterious new leader called the Entity. Fleeing from some angry locals, they are befriended by a mysterious telekinetic named Bishop. After using his powers to rescue them, the trio become traveling companions. But Mary’s makeshift family has a darker edge, as Bishop is clearly on a mission of vengeance against a group who slaughtered his own "family": a government-sponsored team of psi-powered assassins known as the Dead Men, one of whom was Bishop’s wife.
This is a pretty cool story, despite its obvious cinematic roots, which seem a bit out of place in a literary SF magazine.  It was very well done, and I could see Smith expanding on this world in further stories or maybe even a novel, as the concept of the Entity is never fully explained. Bishop’s powers are well thought-out and explained, and Mary is a sympathetic and effective narrator. Smith’s offering is one of this issue’s strongest stories.
The second standout of the issue is Alan R. Barclay‘s corporate-bashing alternate universe tale, "Ice Cream Doors." It’s 1996, and overworked corporate drone Joe is watching a Nike-sponsored moon landing. Even though this is a momentous occasion, Joe can’t help but feel out of sorts. The problem: his unbearable job. But he sees a way out when a co-worker lets him in on a secret meeting of disgruntled employees who want to take their grievances about long hours and low wages to management. When the meeting is raided by police, Joe is taken on a wild ride through a strange and special door, and learns that everyplace is not like home.
This is a cool little alternate universe tale with a touch of C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl‘s The Space Merchants. I can certainly relate to Joe’s plight, though I’m glad I don’t quite have the same problems with my job as Joe does with his. The only thing that didn’t work for me was that Joe’s world is itself an alternate universe, with its ultra-conservative business culture and 1996 moon landings, though I suppose Barclay felt such a feat was necessary to tell the type of story he wanted to tell. I’m also left wondering what he is saying about such a culture’s impact on space travel; Joe’s world has corporate-sponsored moon landings, while the democratic socialist utopia he finds himself in later has people landing on Mars. I don’t get the connection, but it’s an intriguing tale nonetheless.
In "Los Empujadores Furiosos," Elizabeth Bear takes us into the bullfighting ring for a contest between a matador and a sentient bull. Señor Benedicto is seeking apology from the bull’s owner for some public insult, and he’ll do what it takes to get it. In this case, it means killing El Zorro Rojo, the Red Fox, who can talk. A strange tale of honor and worth a read. While talking bulls in fiction have been done before (Ernest Hogan‘s "Tauromachia"), this is still an original idea, and Bear explores it well.
In "The Smell of the Earth," Joan L. Savage takes us to a fantasy world where a musician has just made a deal with a female wizard in a tavern. He is a Jongleur, able to make any heart feel with the power of his music, and he must prove it to the wizard. If he wins, he will become the most famous Jongleur in history. If he loses, the wizard will chop off his hands. His target is a sad, sad man sitting a few tables away. But he is under a spell cast by the same evil wizard. Can the Jongleur’s abilities break the spell?
This is a nice tale, with good worldbuilding (according to the author’s bio, she is working on a novel set in this world). The Jongleur has the ability to go into a person’s thoughts with his music, played on what I’m guessing is a lute or lyre, although the story doesn’t say. This is deep, emotional fantasy, with nary an elf questing for a magic ring or sword in sight. Good stuff.
"Playing Games" by Susan Forest is a strange tale of two inquisitive girls, one of whom seeks the answer to where Santa’s elves come from. But when she makes it to the North Pole, she find out too late that she doesn’t like the answer.  This is a weird one. Cute, clever, but weird. A dark little adult fable disguised as a kid’s story.
Indian magic and the delta blues meet in Bruce Barber‘s "Blues in the Shadows." Frank Diaz has turned himself in for murdering an old Indian man out in the desert, claiming he did it at the old man’s instruction. The old man was cursed, and to end his suffering, he placed the same curse on Diaz by measuring his shadow, effectively capturing it. Deputy Amos Granger is haunted by the man’s story. Contemplating what to do about the town’s violent police chief, Amos decides to take a trip out to the cave where Diaz said he saw the old Indian, and learns an ancient way to stop the sheriff’s brutality.
This story felt a bit disjointed at the beginning, but Barber does a good job of pulling it all together. I like stories about myths worked out in modern times, and the idea of measuring something as non-corporeal as a shadow is an intriguing one.
In "Following Darkness Like a Dream," Lesley D. Livingston takes us backstage at a performance of Shakespeare‘s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," which might just star actual faeries. Irene is the aging star, a grand old lady of the theater. Kelly is her eager understudy. An odd story, I couldn’t see the point of this one, but there are some nice allusions to Shakespeare’s play, though they are hardly overt.
In "Metis," Leah Bobet wanders into Charles de Lint territory for a tale of the Animal People. When the trickster god, Raven, falls out of the sky and lands in the middle of an Indian reservation, an Indian who calls himself Metis (Greek for cleverness) sidles up to the hunk of stone and gets comfortable, eager to see what trick old Raven has in store. Although Metis’s origins remain ambiguous—I could never figure out if he was a boy from the rez or a god himself—this is a nice use of Native American (or in this case, Native Canadian) lore.
In "Ticker Hounds," Shawn Peters takes us into a nightmarish, steampunk England where two men and a woman are fleeing through fog-shrouded streets with a box of valuable punch cards, ironclad soldiers called Boiler Men hot on their heels. The girl, Missy, is suffering from a mysterious and deadly ailment known as the Clacks, which is turning her into clockwork, and is trying to conceal it from the others. They meet an old man who is also suffering from the Clacks, and who is flanked by a pack of mechanical hounds. The dogs help them fight off the Boiler Men, but it isn’t enough for Missy to escape the city, and she learns what the final stage of this strange illness means for her.
Peters has given us a very clever concept here, and I’d like to see more stories set in this world. This is the magazine’s other standout in addition to "Memories of the Dead Man" and "Ice Cream Doors."
On Spec is another excellent SF magazine from our more civilized neighbors to the North. In addition to the great stories, this issue also featured a beautiful, anime-inspired cover, "Rocket Packs" by Kazu Kibuishi. If material like this and Neo-opsis are the kind of cultured entertainment we can expect from Canada, then I hardily welcome the day their vastly superior invasion fleet arrives to show us the error of our ways.