On Spec, Fall 1998

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"The Sorcerer's Wife" by Edo van Belkom
"…And the Retrograde Mentor" by Hugh A.D. Spencer
"Blind Date" by David Chato
"All That Matters" by Robyn Herrington
"Alexandrite" by Shirley Barr
"Soaps" by Hazel Hutchins
"Wild Thing" by Randy Barnhart
"Flatworms" by Carol Thomas
"Always Been the Special One" by Leah Silverman
"A Valediction" by Leslie Brown
"The Vergers: First Story" by fiona heath

I have heard good things about On Spec for years, but only recently got my hands on it. The Fall issue certainly lives up to this magazine's reputation; I found it a terrific collection of speculative fiction, which does honor to the Canadian branch of the genre. I look forward to finding more issues in the future. A subtle yet recurring theme throughout this issue is that of distance — alienation through time, space, high-speed traffic, or simple miscommunication. That makes it relevant to just about everyone in today's world.

Edo van Belkom begins the issue with "The Sorcerer's Wife," a sharp little shadowplay featuring a magic shop in a questionable neighborhood. It turns out that Behna is in the habit of procuring men to pose as husband/sorcerer, dealing with the rowdy customers, so that she can remain safe in the back room to work the real magic. Although the basic stand-in dynamic appears often in fiction, this rendition includes enough wry humor to hold my interest. Pay no attention to the little woman behind the curtain…

Hugh A. D. Spencer's story "…And the Retrograde Mentor" demonstrates, in painful detail, why few people have ever gone broke by underestimating the intelligence of the unwashed masses. Anyone familiar with the public school system or government propaganda will find the excerpts from "Today's Instructional Audio" highly entertaining. The plot concerns a writer, an artificial intelligence called the Apparatus, and several representatives of the audience. Although not quite dystopic, this story paints a creepy picture of what happens when a society spends too much time pursuing idle amusements.

"Blind Date" by David Chato extrapolates the current trend of online romance to a new level. Breena and Charlie have been dating for some time now — but always through a nifty little gadget called an ImageScan, which allows people to create the illusion of spending time together (via holographic projection) even when they live half a world apart. Unfortunately, that tends to make them forget the unique joys of reality. It takes a significant amount of effort on Breena's part to pry Charlie out of his shell and into her life, but the process reveals a lot about human nature. A fine science-fiction romance.

Robyn Herrington's "All That Matters" dishes up a disgusting example of what happens when parental pressure for success goes too far. Having decided that his (perfectly healthy, reasonably bright, just not exceptional) daughter didn't measure up to his own demanding standards, Kevin elected to gamble on hormonal implants before puberty, in hopes of yielding higher IQ, better athletic performance, enhanced memory, etc. But he finds himself dealing with dreadful side effects; Carly's personality splits and drifts chaotically, only to settle at last in "Mina" — the one Kevin dislikes the most. Kevin's wife Vicki blames him for the resulting disaster, and eventually decides to have Kevin modified instead of meddling further with their daughter's mind. This story reads well, but I've seen the modified child/modified parent motif before.

In "Alexandrite" by Shirley Barr we reprise the idea of clones as individual people. This particular version features Cleopatra and an array of artful escapes from a life as an ornamental personage. The description is pretty, but the action is entirely predictable and I've read this story before (concerning several different historic figures).

Hazel Hutchins invites us into the world of "Soaps" in her story. If you talk to the television, warn the characters of upcoming dangers, and groan at their persistent inability to see the obvious, then you will love this story. Like others in this issue, it uses several classic motifs, including the appearance and disappearance of a magical construct that only interacts with one person, and the use of a television show to travel through time, and the alteration of events in a mystical situation affecting real life. Despite that, I found this one engaging for its depth of characterization and attention to detail.

Randy Barnhart's "Wild Thing" is sure to delight anyone who has ever worked in an outdoor wildlife study, though the tension generalizes well to everyone whose previous work experiences include a really obnoxious and obtuse boss. Wearing battle armor while attempting to stalk and capture tiny, agile alien varmints is an exercise in frustration. Happily for the biologists, one of the wee beasties obligingly enters the camp of its own volition, seeking food. The resulting shrieks inspire one high-strung researcher to trigger the camp's automatic defenses; the description of heavy artillery ricocheting off the nearby rocks and into their equipment offers a lot of bang for your buck.

"Flatworms" by Carol Thomas has only one drawback: once you have read the title and seen the vivid illustration, nothing remains to guess about in the story if you know the research it's based on. Still, I found the execution so accurate and so entertaining that a complete lack of surprise did not diminish my enjoyment at all, and this is probably my favorite story in the whole issue. It possesses a crisp, concise perfection that I can only admire. The abusive husband who orchestrates the death of the telekinetic dog — and later his own baby — could have walked right out of one of my women's studies textbooks. Yes, folks, there really are monsters in the world; in fact that's another part of this story's charm: its utterly solid verisimilitude.

"Always Been the Special One" by Leah Silverman is considerably less predictable, but also less entertaining. It tends to drift a bit, suffering from a lack of focus perhaps engendered by the characters' efforts to alter reality according to their individual whims — which don't match very well. I read it all the way through, but with diminishing interest as to whether the characters lived or died. It features a typical psychic power motif and some very mundane sibling rivalry.

Leslie Brown's "A Valediction" blends horror and science fiction for a kind of obscure ghost story mixed with cyberpunk touches. Imagine a mausoleum full of dead people's brainwave imprints, which serve as patterns for electronic avatars. Trouble is, activating them wears them out in fairly short order. A street girl spends a lot of time with these ghosts-in-the-machine, who try to encourage her to get out and do something with her life. Good advice: her actions in the story certainly didn't do much to hold my interest.

A favorite style characterizes fiona heath's "The Vergers: First Story." I usually like stories told in mythic mode, and this one is no exception. It also uses, to rare good effect, the application of a single paragraph to both beginning and end. When you first read the lines in the introduction, they only sort-of make sense — but by the time you get to the end, you know what the author is talking about and everything falls into place. Essentially this story tells the origin of a strange group of social castoffs called the Vergers, who live in the median zone between lanes of whizzing traffic so fast and so dense that no one can cross. Carole and Alfonzo get marooned their when their car spins out of control. They don't try for rescue because it would be too expensive. In a few short pages, the author sketches out a techno-happy world with a very ugly underside … which is nonetheless great fun to gawk at.

Besides reviews Elizabeth Barrette writes other nonfiction and fiction, including some outside the speculative field. Her work often appears in Eternity Online, Spicy Green Iguana, and other markets. Favorite pastimes include white-water rafting on the stream of consciousness and suspension-of-disbelief bungee-jumping, and spelunking in other people's reality tunnels.