On Spec, Winter 1999/2000

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"Now Entering the Ring" by Tanya Huff
"How Many Angels Can Dance" by Candas Jane Dorsey
"The Halfhigh Vexation" by Sherry D. Ramsey
"The Skeleton Crows" by Randy Schroeder
"Smashing Windows" by Douglas Ivison
"Waking Day" by Robert H. Beer
"The Fireweed Eldorado" by Joe Murphy
"Pilgrims at the Well" by Linda Smith
"The Fermi Paradox" by Leslie Lupien
"No-Name in the Long Winter" by Mary Soon Lee
"Just for the Beautiful" by Marlene Wurfel

In digest format, with a full color cover, attractive layout, and compelling interior artwork, On Spec is a great looking magazine. Unfortunately, some rather poor stories in this issue almost ruined my enjoyment of the few good ones.

Jean-Pierre Normand's illustration for Leslie Lupien's "The Fermi Paradox" drew me to the story immediately. In it, an astronaut gazes into the Great Unknown, evoking the film _2001_. Indeed, this is a first contact story set on the moon. But there is very little sense of wonder here. An alien spacecraft has landed near a human settlement, and the one scientist sent to investigate can barely suppress a yawn. Lupien hasn't done his homework on the moon, either. His astronauts think that a misstep or merely brushing against a sharp rock will rupture their pressure suits (you only have to watch tape of the Apollo astronauts falling all over the place to know this is silly), and they refer to the lunar regolith that comprises the moon's surface as "sand." I might be able to overlook these gaffs if the characters were believable, or if the story had anything new to say about first contact.

Candas Jane Dorsey's short story "How Many Angels Can Dance" is a dense, rambling, fractured narrative on the theme of angels precipitating out of a bronze sky on a modern terrestrial city. After huddling afraid in lighted rooms, the angels save the city from the crushing death of the falling sky by beating their wings, and then they dance so that they can be counted. I found this piece almost impenetrable. "There's a pattern of logic somewhere," says the story's narrative voice at one point. "Someone will get the point." Not me.

In Sherry D. Ramsey's short story "The Halfhigh Vexation," a young wizard's apprentice is surprised by an irksome sprite called a halfhigh. The little creature's only purpose in life is to annoy human beings, which it does to our heroine to good effect when it follows her home. After several failures over the coming days, the apprentice finally succeeds in outwitting the halfhigh, thereby advancing in her training. Nothing terribly original or exciting here, but it's a well-constructed piece.

The "The Skeleton Crows" by Randy Schroeder suffers from some of the unevenness that plagues most of the other stories in this issue, but it pulled me in with some strong stylistic touches ("mizzled with droplets," "teabag moon steeping the night sky"). In it, a crooked restauranteur is confronted with his own mortality in the form of a trio of skeletal crows who attempt to frighten him into some kind of repentance for his evil ways. He changes his tune not a bit and in fact attempts to swindle the crows just as he has his customers and his competition. I wasn't sure what to make of the cryptic ending, but the story had enough going for it to make it memorable to me.

Bored teenagers in Douglas Ivison's short story "Smashing Windows" struggle to rebel in a future society that doesn't care. Their small acts of vandalism are duly recorded by omnipresent floating TV cameras, but go unpunished, until one of the boys begins bombing storefronts. A well-ordered society with cameras everywhere but no enforcement? I didn't buy it. This slice-of-future-life story had its moments, but ultimately didn't satisfy me.

"Waking Day" by Robert H. Beer is more promising, but ultimately doesn't follow through. Based on the shaky premise that population control in the future is accomplished by making children sleep through half their lives, the story concerns a girl who discovers that she has a brother who is awake during the times when she is asleep. Some intriguing and poignant efforts at communication follow between these two people who can never meet, but the story finishes with a revenge plot that seemed contrived to me.

I had a hard time getting past the first paragraph of "The Fireweed Eldorado" by Joe Murphy: "A hell of a time, I decide, staring at my poor Caddy. Now I'd not only lost a woman, but my wheels as well. Chicks and cars, the two loves of my life, so different, yet so full of delicious possibilities. 'Damn it all, damn it to fucking hell!'" Turns out the narrator really doesn't give a damn about this woman he had a one-nighter with, and anyway, she's just a stock sex symbol with no personality. The narrator seems to be stuck in some kind of unexplained time loop where he's forced to interact with her (or her daughter 20 years later) on a regular basis. This presents an opportunity for some interesting human interaction, but it never gets beyond a superficial level. That and some very uneven writing made this one extremely hard going for me.

"Pilgrims at the Well" by Linda Smith concerns four people in some indeterminate time on a quest to an oracular well at the top of a mountain. Each pilgrim is in search of an answer to some essential question. Confusing shifts in viewpoint and the fact that the story hinges on some inexplicable behavior on the part of the characters kept me from really enjoying this one. Why do the pilgrims have to hike to the well at the onset of winter? They've obviously planned for this journey, so why aren't they dressed for the weather? The piece almost manages to pull itself together at the end when the pilgrims, at first suspicious and fearful of each other, bond and help each other find their own answers.

In "Now Entering the Ring," Tanya Huff takes us into the world of professional wrestling, which turns out to be darker than we think. Our hero, at first just excited about being adored by a crowd, finds himself taking on the role of Gargoyle, a supernatural wrestler who acts as a channel for all of the nastiness and ugliness generated by the fans. This role is passed down from wrestler to wrestler, and it gives the holder superhuman strength, but ultimately kills him. Huff keeps her distance from her characters, turning a disdainful eye on the wrestlers and their fans. The story held my interest, but it won't stay with me. It seemed a minor work from a writer I know is capable of more.

"No-Name in the Long Winter" is a fine, quiet dream by Mary Soon Lee. A young woman is exiled from her forest village because her superstitious kinfolk believe she is causing the unusually long winter they are experiencing. Forced to set out into the forest on her own, she seeks shelter in a tree, and there her essential goodness actually warms the space around her and brings spring prematurely. From then on spring comes first to that part of the wood. This story is a fairy tale, never promising more than it delivers.

I've saved the best for last. "Just for the Beautiful" by Marlene Wurfel features a fascinating, fully realized other world, and shows us what happens when that world is shaken by outsiders (who happen to behave very much like us). A starship full of refugees is taken in by a very regimented society of humans who can change their sex at will. When one of the outsiders and one of the citizens fall in love, the citizen finds him/herself wanting to stay the same sex for the first time in his/her life, and he/she must pay the price when their affair is discovered. This story asks some important questions about the price we might pay for a stable, non-contentious society, and makes us wonder if it would be worth it. It's a good piece of social SF with some great sex thrown in.

Michael P. Belfiore has sold short fiction to Aboriginal Science Fiction, Aberrations, VB Tech Journal, and other publications, and he is currently at work on a novel about a theater company on tour to the moon. He lives in the Hudson River Valley, where he runs a writing-for-hire business with his soon-to-be wife, Wendy Kagan.