On Spec, Summer 1998

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"Families" by David Hull
"Exchange" by Allan Weiss
"Chasing the Dragon on the Sea of Tranquility" by Steven Mills
"Vow Tats" by Steven Snair
"Strange Harvest" by Edward Willett
"Cleaner" by Brent Hayward
"The Number Before Infinity" by Tracy Kenderdine
"Vivaldi's Spring" by paulo da costa
"The Fourth Horseman" by Peter Sommer
"Eavesdropping" by John Graham

This magazine presents some of Canada's finest speculative fiction, along with a smattering of poetry and some very sharp line art. The stories in this particular issue include several based on technology, a few excellent sociological pieces, and some surreal stuff that just didn't float my boat. Overall I found the mix appealing, and there are some real gems here.

"Families" by David Hull is one of the techno stories, set in the not-too-distant future. It centers around a sort of cyborg camera that allows parents to view and record what their children are seeing — and therefore doing. I found that underlying concept appalling. Eventually, the mother comes to realize this, which is a good thing because up to that point the story really bugged me. As-is, I rather like the way it turns out. The setting and characterization are both believable; in fact, too plausible for comfort.

In "Exchange" by Allan Weiss, we explore interspecies relationships and the concept of communication as a two-way street. Peter moves to the planet Foralla because he wants to live among the alien Iplians and study their culture. One drawback of this lifestyle immediately becomes apparent, because within a few days the Iplians' loud voices begin to degrade Peter's hearing. His attempts to address this problem, and the Iplians' reactions to same, create a fascinating and intricate cultural intercourse on their own. I found many aspects of this story delightful. First, the author's care in constructing the Iplian society and race show through in the many thoughtful details, and the Iplians come across as both interesting and believable. Second, I like the attention to challenges in interspecies communication, in this case the complexity and volume of the Iplian language. Third, the emphasis on give-and-take forms the main theme of this story, and that for me is the essence of communication. It isn't a one-way street. Next, the sophisticated coverage of relationships extends into the human sphere; setting and characterization combine to drive the plot quite capably. Finally, the resolution fits perfectly yet is not obvious ahead of time, something I greatly appreciate. This story became an instant favorite, and language mavens will love it.

"Chasing the Dragon on the Sea of Tranquility" uses author Steven Mills' experience as a paramedic to good effect. This story explores the challenges of emergency medical work on the moon, in the tradition of pieces like Elizabeth Moon's "ABCs in Zero-G." The technical details stand up solidly all around, and the characterization makes a great deal of sense. In the beginning and middle, the plot hangs together well too. However, the author's lack of writing experience shows at the end — the story doesn't conclude firmly, it just dribbles off into nowhere. This of course is how real life usually happens, but it doesn't read well in fiction. Nothing a little practice can't fix; I'll be watching for more of Steven Mills writing in the future. Hard science fiction fans will probably like this one anyway; I found it entertaining but not ultimately satisfying.

Steven Snair's "Vow Tats" blends a lot of different motifs into a somewhat confusing picture. While individually intriguing — the crazy brother, the mysterious stranger who collects tanned human skins, the elusive dream scene — these motifs never really come together. I enjoyed the local color depicting the tattoo culture, but the execution doesn't really live up to the promise of the story.

Autumn brings us a "Strange Harvest" courtesy of Edward Willett. You know how vegetables sometimes grow into bizarre shapes, pictures of which appear periodically in the tabloid papers? Well, this story supposes those vegetables got just a little bit weirder. I loved the attentive descriptions of tomato grenades, napalm radishes, glowing electric potatoes, and oh yes, tear-gas onions. That last one made me laugh out loud. The plot features a reporter working for a small local newspaper, and our hero winds up on a quest to figure out what the heck is causing these permutations of produce. Once again, the explanation is logical, unexpected, and entertaining. Share a copy of this story with your friends who practice organic gardening.

Brent Hayward sets up an elaborate and surreal society in "Cleaner" which takes place entirely on an enormous bridge. We get no real clue as to who the characters are, how they got there, or even where the bridge is. The story is all detail and no context — no drama either. The characters do things, including some theoretically adventurous things, but I couldn't bring myself to care. The illustration outshines the narration.

"The Number Before Infinity" by Tracy Kenderdine incorporates both surreal and technological motifs, but with considerably better success. This story demonstrates some of the best short-fiction characterization I've seen; within a few lines I really liked the protagonist Ellie, because she asks the kind of questions I ask, and I despised her father for being clueless and unsupportive — though I must admit, he improves somewhat over the course of the story. I can relate to Ellie even though she specializes in math, which is not at all my field, and I can sympathize with her urgent search for the number mentioned in the title. It's a fascinating concept, and naturally it gets her in all kinds of trouble. But in the end, Ellie follows her heart, and that's what makes the story work for me. It's an odd tale, but highly effective, inclined to haunt the corners of your memory long after you put it down.

Technology and sociology mingle in paulo da costa's story "Vivaldi's Spring," named after the music that plays throughout the events depicted within. Specifically, the author takes a close look at one possible future in which babies come custom-designed, produced conveniently outside the mother's body. The copyright birth names are a great touch. I also admire the way the author borrows elements from a classic, messy childbirth and recreates them according to his scenario. Whimsical yet plausible upsets of expectation make this story charming, though I'd never want to live in the society it describes — much too detached from real life, which of course is the point of the story. It's a nice fantasy for expectant mothers, though.

"The Fourth Horseman" by Peter Sommer made minimal sense to me. It attempts to blend several genres — vampires, a Wild West setting, and the classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — with negligible success. I found the results confusing and unsatisfying, more inclined to clash with each other than to collaborate. The plot wobbles around in an irregular path (characteristic of many Westerns, actually) and then collapses at the end without really resolving anything. I remain unimpressed by this one.

John Graham's "Eavesdropping" also failed to please, for similar reasons, although this one actually started with an advantage: I like cemeteries, and that's where much of this story takes place. But I couldn't seem to involve myself in the action, and I couldn't figure out all the details of the setting. The plot didn't make a whole lot of sense either. Near as I can tell, there are some talking headstones encasing the personality of deceased persons (which ought to have been fascinating, and wasn't) and these help drive the actions of the live persons in the plot, whatever that is. Ultimately forgettable.

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.