On Spec, #65, Summer 2006

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Image"An Obtuse Argument Against Foreign Products" by Daniel LeMoal
"Lagtime" by Leah Bobet
"Outside Chance" by Matthew Johnson
"The Exterminator" by John Southern Blake
"Androids and You" by Bill Stuart
"Everybody’s Mother" by S. Evans
"The Jekyll Effect" by Kevin Cockle
"A Black Silhouette" by Helena Krobath
"After Hours at the Black Hole" by C. June Wolf
"Coming Back to Kabul" by Dave Whittier
In "An Obtuse Argument Against Foreign Products," Daniel LeMoal takes us on a tour of retail hell that is truly hellish. Ted Wight is working the night shift, gearing up for a huge sale for which customers are already pounding on the doors seeking entry. But when he and another associate start unpacking the new shipment of electronics from Aoi Haru, they get more than they bargained for when the televisions start reconfiguring themselves into giant, robotic killing machines.

I love stories that inject the fantastic into perfectly mundane situations, and LeMoal does this in spades. His portrayal of the types of characters who would work in this type of environment—from the two guys who were fired earlier in the evening and spent the next two hours playing a video game, to the guy who didn’t start counting his break time until he saw a manager walk past the break room door—are spot on. This makes the strangeness and horror of the robots all the more strange and horrific. The only thing LeMoal didn’t do was explain their purpose, and there’s a couple of point of view changes to a woman who works for Aoi Haru Corporation that didn’t make sense or add anything to the story. Still, LeMoal’s characterizations of these people and their fantastic dilemma saves this story.

Matthew Johnson takes us on a tour of probable futures in "Outside Chance." In a dystopian nightmare, explorers time travel into alternate futures to find the one perfect future that their world can become. When two of these travelers stumble on to it, they find a group of fellow explorers thought to be lost who want to keep this perfect world a secret. But is it action that will make this peaceful world a reality? Or inaction?

This is a great story, a delightful new riff on time travel. The characters are intriguing, and the plot is well developed. Johnson’s "Outside Chance" is one of the best stories I’ve seen in a while.

In "The Exterminator," John Southern Blake journeys into the life of an ordinary old woman with an extraordinary household pest. And the exterminator she calls to get rid of it gets more than the old lady’s lemonade and snacks. The character’s ordinary reactions to the strange critter in the basement make for a humorous tale. While the exterminator battles with a huge creature that looks like a cross between a lobster and a scorpion, the old lady worries over having enough lemonade and cookies to feed the guy. Hilarious! Like the previous tale, "An Obtuse Argument Against Foreign Products," Blake’s "The Exterminator" pits the perfectly bland against the fantastically monstrous and does so with humorous effect. Another standout story for this issue.

"Androids and You" by Bill Stuart is another funny SF tale written as a sort of letter/public service announcement. It tells of the many different varieties of androids there have been over the years, from The Cuddlebunny to the United Military Deathbot to the Bureaubot. Weird and funny, and a nice break from the usual short story format. After reading this little ditty, you won’t be going out to buy an android anytime soon.

"Everybody’s Mother" by S. Evans is about everybody’s mother, literally. Eve is a genetically engineered Homo ergaster. Humanity’s mitochondrial Eve, the proto-human construct was implanted inside the womb of research assistant Janie’s lesbian lover, Karen. The job of taking care of Eve is draining Janie, and Karen wants more control over Eve, feeling a maternal bond with the construct because she gave birth to her. This causes pressure between the couple.

The experiment with Eve was much more interesting to me than the pressures of Janie, the sleazy head of research, Dr. Stillman, and Karen, but Evans tells a moving, emotional story with some highly controversial elements. The overall idea behind it is intriguing, and I’d like to see more done with the concepts presented here.

Kevin Cockle channels Robert Louis Stevenson in "The Jekyll Effect." Charlie has transformed himself from a pushover Milquetoast into a ball-busting stockbroker, thanks to the formula that Doctor Jekyll used to turn into Mr. Hyde. Seems the man and the juice were real, and the formula was bought by his father’s company. Anyway, Charlie drinks it every day and has become head of his own firm, while losing his health and his soul in the process. But the old Charlie is still in there and leaves himself little reminders of what life used to be like, in between doses. What will Charlie do with this information, and what happens when his wife starts taking the magic potion?

This is a nice updating of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of a character who is as sad as he is unlikable, at least when on the juice. Cockle seems to know a lot about the trading industry as well, which gives this story a healthy dose of verisimilitude.

In "The Black Silhouette," Helena Krobath peeks into the life of Marvin, a successful playwright, but when a woman writes him a nasty letter accusing him of "pawning his anger off on society" and telling Marvin his mother must be ashamed of him, his nephew Jerry picks it up, telling him, "you gotta get the anger out."

This story started off interestingly enough. As a writer myself, I’m interested in seeing how other writers handle conservative critics whose one complaint is that they use too many swear words, but I was expecting a bit more. Clearly the playwright is angry with his mother, but why exactly? This is a story without closure, even the ambiguous sort that rounds out today’s more experimental literary stories.

C. June Wolf‘s "After Hours at the Black Hole" is about a galactic garbage man, Jude, who hauls people’s unwanted junk to a black hole for disposal. Once it goes in, that’s it. Until Jude finds himself hauling a very special cargo that is still attached to its owners.

I was expecting a story about a black hole or a bar, then a tale about a garbage collector who tosses the galaxy’s waste into a black hole. Except the stuff Jude is hauling is more of the metaphysical variety, the galaxy’s cruddy soul stuff that accumulates over a lifetime of living. This story has a Harlan Ellison feel to it, though the turn from black hole physics to impossible metaphysics did detract from the story. But it’s an interesting tale nonetheless.

It was inevitable that we start seeing more and more war in Iraq stories, but they are welcome, especially if well done. In "Coming Back to Kabul," Dave Whittier takes us into the life of a soldier whose endless tours of duty serve to help him get away from the pain and guilt of losing his son to drowning. His son died saving him, and now he must help the ghost of a young boy in Kabul who was killed by a landmine while trying to retrieve his kite. This simple act will cause Major Mark Walsh to question his sanity, but in the end it may be just what he needs to forgive himself for his son’s tragic death.
Ghost stories where the person’s soul won’t rest until someone does something for it are a dime a dozen, but Whittier goes them one better, taking us into a world many of us will fortunately never see and describing it with the keen vision of one who has walked those distant sands. This is an emotion-laden story with a great payoff.