On Spec, #66, Fall 2006

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Image"Sticky Wonder Tales" by Hugh A.D. Spencer
"Tidal Maneuvers" by Derek Künsken
"Finish the Game" by Stephen Leclerc
"Vision Quest™" by Alexander Polkki
"Spiked!" by Saint James Harris Wood
"Why Does the Freed Tiger Glare, If Indeed It Glares At All?" by Robert Lake
"Silicon Singularity" by Ernie Reimer

"And its Noise as the Noise in a Dream; And its Depth as the Roots of the Sea" by Leah Bobet

"A Bit of the True Material" by John Bowker
"The Art of Solitude®" by Mark Shainblum
Our Superior Canadian Overlords have dispatched yet another enlightening communiqué from that enchanting Northern realm of socialized medicine and Robert J. Sawyer, and you’d better pay attention.

In "Sticky Wonder Tales," Hugh A.D. Spencer takes us into an epistolary story conjured by the letter writing of two brothers who are both involved in some high-level dealings involving alien technology. One of them is being transformed into something not quite human, while the other is piloting an alien-inspired flight simulator in a job "so boring that it will fossilize your brain or so dangerous that it will melt your gonads" (been there, done that). And both of them find themselves changed in ways that no one—let alone the researchers using them as guinea pigs—could imagine.

This is a very subtle, unusual take on first contact, and I’m still wondering how the heck Spencer came up with it in the first place. By turns funny and sad, "Sticky Wonder Tales" is a great start for this excellent issue of On Spec.

In "Tidal Maneuvers," Derek Künsken takes us to a world that has survived its sun going supernova, but lost its mantle and crust in the process. Now it spins around the remains of its star, now a pulsar, tiny islands of steel needles floating on a vast ocean of metal carbonyls. But what is most interesting is the life this world has evolved.

Pik is an eight-clawed crab-like being composed entirely of tiny metal needles held together by a weak magnetic field, and he is fighting for his very survival, as well as that of his offspring, his "bud" as it is referred to in this excellent tale. He and others of his kind are scrabbling for survival on a tiny island floating in this metal carbonyl sea. Pik is as close to this deadly ocean as he can get (if they become submerged, the magnetic field disappears and they come apart). He isn’t big or strong enough to fight for a better position, so he must rely on simple ingenuity. He finds a fallen bird and plucks its metal wings, attaches them to his own body, and when the tide comes—that period when their tiny metal ball of a planet gets closest to its sun, pulling the metal ocean up over the needle islands—Pik plans to make his escape to a new, bigger island.

Künsken does some great worldbuilding here, reminding me of Stephen Baxter‘s non-organic alien creations, with a struggle to survive worthy of a PBS documentary. There’s no profound wisdom to be shared here, just some neat ideas wrapped in great writing, and a non-human creature who touches the heart with his humanity.

"Finish the Game" is a subtle sort of ghost story, which seems incongruous coming on the heels of Künsken’s "Tidal Maneuvers," but it is well-told just the same. Stephen Leclerc takes us to a town full of sinister secrets and a man returning to find the answers. Dean Campbell is going home to confront his childhood ghosts. His best friend was mysteriously murdered when they were kids, and that death has haunted him for years. After running into two other schoolmates as adults and later learning that they were also murdered after Dean left town, and finding a chessman on his friend’s grave (the two boys loved to play chess with each other), Dean tracks down his friend’s killer.

This tale has a Stephen King feel to it, with the childhood ghosts and secrets locked in musty basements, but whereas King would have turned this into a nine-hundred-page novel, Leclerc manages to encapsulate the story in far less space. There were a few problems with this story—Dean finds the killer with the help of an unnecessarily bitchy librarian who dispatches him in a highly unlikely—though somewhat poetic—manner. I was also left wondering why the killer supposedly killed Dean’s adult high school chums. Did they find out he was a murderer? But it’s still a good story overall. Leclerc uses the chess imagery fittingly without going overboard, and the final confrontation gives a bloody but necessary denouement.

In "Vision Quest™," Alexander Polkki gives us an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published novel, Makerman. Set in a near-future Quebec, this tale pits a pair of "eco terrorists" against a United States water-stealing operation. Very sinister stuff, but considering the current political environment, very plausible. It’s interesting—and sobering—to see how our brothers and sisters to the North view the current regime running our government. There’s some great worldbuilding here, even if I didn’t understand all of it. Hopefully the novel-length version fleshes this place and time out a lot more.

In "Spiked!", Saint James Harris Wood takes us on a camping trip with a motley band of young eco-terrorists. One of them is already on the run from the police, but accompanies his friends into the forest for a little tree spiking and ends up doing a lot more. One by one, the group is separated, and after seeing strange lights in the sky, comes to find out they have all been covered from head to toe in ornate tattoos. Soon, these people who don’t eat meat find out they are meat, as they are confronted by giant aliens and slathered in extraterrestrial BBQ sauce! The aliens eat one of the group before yacking him up and realizing that tree huggers don’t make good snacks.

At least, I think this is what the writer meant. This is such a bizarre story. I had a hard time feeling for the protagonists or gathering meaning from this. I don’t know if this story is meant to be funny, or what. Certainly not the best this issue had to offer.

In "Why Does the Freed Tiger Glare, If Indeed It Glares At All?" by Robert Lake, a group of World War II vets trade war stories in a bar. One of the old men, Hiram, has a peg leg and was shot down by Herman Goering’s nephew over Germany. He was also the inspiration for one Abel Mann, a children’s writer who adapted his work for the stage, to create a character based on him for an endless series of orphan tales with titles like The One-Legged Orphan Who Learned to Hop, Skip, and Jump, and, my personal favorite, The Orphan Who Learned to Wait Patiently While Mummy Suckled The New Baby, Conceived During A Russian Gang Rape. This Hiram is also an accomplished big game hunter, and he also recounts how he and Mann shot a tiger who purportedly glared at them, which frames the title of the story.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one. The banter among the old men is funny in spots, but it doesn’t really do much for me. A humorous tale, but its lack of a speculative element makes me wonder why it was published in a speculative fiction magazine.

It’s been interesting to see what effect the events of 9/11 have had on our collective psyche, and how that has played out in speculative literature. In "Silicon Singularity," Ernie Reimer gives us his take on increased security, fear, and the Singularity. Dr. Erika Sebastian is leaving the tight security of the States for Berlin to research the history of a neural chip that has been implanted into almost everyone on the planet, giving them better reflexes and the ability to enter a complex, virtual world. But it also monitors what we eat and drink and do behind closed doors. Erika’s husband is a huge fan of this technology, so he left her to pursue his dream of creating virtual versions of real things. Europe has resisted the implant so far, but Erika discovers that one European corporation has developed a genetic version of the implant, with ramifications far worse than the silicon variety.

Now this is good science fiction, taking horrifying things from today’s headlines—9/11, SARS, Avian Flu—and translating it into future tense so precise that you just know we’re going to wake up there one day. I certainly hope not. Good stuff.

In "And its Noise as the Noise in a Dream; And its Depth as the Roots of the Sea" by Leah Bobet, we go on a haunting voyage through the sea of time from one naval disaster to the next as the narrator, who is the female reincarnation of some very famous yet doomed sailors, tries to escape the inexorable pull of the ocean depths that long to imprison her for all eternity. From Olympic to Titanic and Brittanic, this amalgam of Ahab, Sinbad, the captain of the Flying Dutchman, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s Ancient Mariner gets into one naval disaster after another, only to be born again in another life, but still feeling the pull of the sea she knows she should stay away from.

This is a finely written story. Bobet’s tale is haunting, lyrical, and rises above the usual genre fair.

In "A Bit of the True Material," John Bowker spins a sad tale of domestic abuse as Sean Fitzpatrick comes over to replace the glass in his daughter’s kitchen window—glass that her husband destroyed when he was high, after he got Sean’s daughter, Kate, to try shooting stuff into her veins. But glass tells a story, and Sean has very special eyes that can read those stories. And he doesn’t like what he sees.

By turns ordinary, whimsical, and dark, this is a powerful little story that packs a lot of narrative oomph into a short space.

What would posthumans do for fun? Why, take up bartending of course! At least that’s what Mark Shainblum posits in his story, "The Art of Solitude®." Mary-Ann has had it with her husband, Quentin’s, antics, and his quest for the perfect Margarita is clearly the last straw. Emotionally unable to throw him out, Mary-Ann decides to create a space where she can have some peace and quiet, and buys a portable, extra-dimensional room for her art studio. But even that place isn’t safe when Quentin orders a refrigerator, bar, and all the accouterments for his friends to come and watch him make drinks, which spills over (quite literally) into Mary-Ann’s artists’ retreat, with traumatic and hilarious results.

People have argued that it will be impossible to imagine what life would be like on the other side of a Singularity because humanity will be so fundamentally altered as to not even be human anymore. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Especially if it gives us excellent tales like this.