On Spec, #67, Winter 2006

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"Lifebouy" by Matthew Johnson
"Eight Precious Spiced Jewels" by Kevin Cockle
"Commentary on the Game" by Daniel J. Bishop
"Cold War Kid" by Steve Mohn
"Night Transit" by Nancy Chenier
"Dark Blood" by D.T. Mitenko
"Sagebrush Inn" by Kay Weathersby Garrett
"The Sangoma" by Scott Mackay
Police work is the subject of Matthew Johnson’s "Lifebouy." When one of Detective Karen Dowd’s men dies on her watch, it sends her on a quest to discover why the lifebuoy, a temporal retrieval device, didn’t work. This is an interesting idea, and the characterization is crisp and realistic. I do think the speculative element could’ve been portrayed better, but the imagination fills in the blanks.

In "Eight Precious Spiced Jewels" by Kevin Cockle, Tom has been trapped in a relationship with his lover, Anne, ever since she told him her secret. Anne is a mind reader of sorts. Hard to say, because the narrator is rather vague on this. The story takes place as the two dine at a Szechuan restaurant called the Dragon Palace. Anne makes comments on the various patrons using her talent, while Tom takes the reader down memory lane with various flashbacks. All Tom’s friends hate Anne and feel sorry for him. Not much happens in this story, though there is a conclusion of sorts.

Daniel J. Bishop’s "Commentary on the Game" is a flash piece borrowing from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Divided into five sections, boys playing hockey are contrasted with Oberon and Titania; the one thing tying this together is the hockey puck and the character Puck. There is a small enchantment in the fusing of these elements, but not enough for me to recommend it.

"Cold War Kid" by Steve Mohn is not so much a story as a fictional essay on growing up in the paranoid 50s and 60s. The narrator reminisces first about his family and then talks about the bomb and Godzilla movies and sundry other related things. I grew up during this same time and remember much of what is being talked about here, and I still found this dull. I can’t imagine what younger readers, desensitized by blockbuster movies and special effects, might think. This isn’t really a story as it is a psychological treatment with little payoff in the end.

Nancy Chenier tells a grim modern fantasy in "Night Transit." Told in second person, the reader is forced to witness the grimy side of life as a busser, a man who rides a bus. Various fantastic elements pop up to make this speculative fiction. Dark, well-written, gritty.

"Dark Blood" by D.T. Mitenko concerns a superhuman assassin named Tanya who, in the opening scene, has her rifle trained on a man, but decides not to kill him. The next day, the intended target waits in ambush and knocks her out and then imprisons her. He wants Tanya’s blood for the nanos it contains that will make him superhuman as well. Told in first person, it wasn’t until nearly halfway through that we learn Tanya’s name. That wouldn’t be so bad, but up until then, I’d thought she was a man. Okay, I’ll admit gender-assumption on my part, but in this masculine action story it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption to make. To me, the sex of the protag is important, and I like this to be told, or at least strongly hinted at, up front. Yes, this is one of the drawbacks of the first person narrative, but the clever writer knows many ways around this. Also, this story involves a future that burns books.

The devil visits the Old West in Kay Weathersby Garrett’s "Sagebrush Inn." Brothel madame May Fern and her trollops’ lives are upended when Black Jack, a European gentleman, comes to town and takes over their lives. After informing them that God is a woman on a holiday in the Maldives, and convincing everyone of his powers by having the corpses of Boot Hill walk the Earth, he demands a virgin be brought to him so he can produce the Antichrist. Garrett’s command of the language is well-developed, a necessity to charm the reader with these outlandish events. The end was overly simple, but still an enjoyable tale.

The best story in this issue is "The Sangoma" by Scott Mackay. Govan is a young, black South African in Cape Town whose brother has AIDS and has developed a huge tumor in his belly as a complication. Govan is also fascinated with the mission to Mars on his television, as the first men walk upon the Red Planet. But one of them has developed a huge tumor in his belly similar to Govan’s brother, and Govan is convinced it’s his fault, that he’s opened an unhealthy umkhondo between them. Wanting to make things right, he goes to the sangoma, in essence a Zula shaman, a woman named Mama Mabala.

I can see hard-SF readers complaining about the fantasy element in an otherwise science fiction story. I might have complained too if Mackay hadn’t done such a good job here. Both Mars and South Africa come alive.