Spectrum SF, #9, November 2002

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"Thursday's Child" by Eric Brown
"The White Devil" by Sarah Singleton
"Faster, Higher, Stronger" by Chris Lawson
"The Imperial Army" by Adam Roberts

In its few short years of existence, Spectrum SF has established a reputation as one of the better professional magazines of short science fiction. Its ninth issue, which is the first I've had the chance to read, contains two novelettes and two short stories, as well the conclusion of Charles Stross' novel serialization, The Atrocity Archive. The magazine is attractively produced, quite readable and with a very nice cover. But for one glitch–the page numbers in the table of contents are inaccurate–this issue lives up to the magazine's reputation for high standards.

Eric Brown starts things off with "Thursday's Child," the fourth–but effectively self-contained–story in a series. Alien visitors called the Kéthani have introduced a new technology to Earth that grants immortality to humankind. In this future, people have the option of receiving an implant that will enable their eventual resurrection when they die. Dan Chester works for this system as a "ferryman," his job to collect the bodies of the dead so that they can be preserved until resurrection. Dan and his highly religious wife, Marianne, are separated, over an argument about whether or not to have their daughter implanted with the Kéthani technology. Marianne believes that granting Lucy immortality will damn her soul to hell, while Dan merely wishes to ensure a long healthy life for his daughter. This central conflict is given urgency by the news that Lucy has leukemia, forcing her parents into renewed struggle. The writing is smooth and well paced in this tale, which effectively examines the consequences an immortal society might have on aspects of religious belief. (Although it does so at the expense, perhaps, of other issues–perhaps fleshed out in the series' other stories?) The story moves forward a bit predictably, but otherwise it's an enjoyable read.

In "The White Devil," Sarah Singleton gives us a glimpse of an intriguing future in which the advanced technology of the world has been used to recreate an era of its past. The protagonist, Jeriko, receives a love letter from the beautiful actress Vittoria Corombona, the lead in a popular Jacobean stage play. Blinded by his desire, Jeriko uses the information in the letter to finally meet his infatuation in person. As the tragic plot unfolds, the world's science fictional details are revealed, gradually painting the picture of a covert future hidden underneath a past-like surface. It's a quick, fun tale with many surprises, but unfortunately the more the reader learns about this world, the less believable Jeriko's behavior becomes in retrospect. Still, not bad.

"Faster, Higher, Stronger" by Chris Lawson considers the question of how far athletes will go to win. Long distance runner Ty Mercurio has an "old school" stance on the use of drug enhancements to improve performance, an opinion which increases as he sees his sport, and his personal life, forever altered by their proliferation and abuse. The story's science fictional elements are minimal–aside from the drugs themselves, there's not much in the way of futuristic extrapolation. This makes the story feel one step removed from mainstream fiction, perhaps, but it's still an effective cautionary tale, well written and heartfelt.

Rounding out the issue is a sprawling, broad canvas novelette by Adam Roberts, "The Imperial Army." In a writing style that channels contemporary sensibilities through an old-fashioned space opera feel, Roberts tell the story of Sidlan Air beta, a young citizen of an unimaginably vast galactic empire who, first unwittingly but later quite willfully, contributes to the empire's military campaign against a vicious race of relentless "virus aliens" called the Xflora. As he climbs through the ranks, and the aims of the military agenda shift in unexpected directions, the subversive underpinnings of the story become increasingly evident: this is a story of power corrupted, and necessary military force ultimately misdirected, and one man's complicity with and ultimate rejection of the system. The story crackles along swiftly and enjoyably, and Roberts injects his scenario with a great deal of inventiveness, but in the end it rather feels like a runaway freight train that crashes to a halt, an exciting ride that doesn't quite resolve satisfactorily. However ambitious and engaging, this one falls a bit short of truly succeeding.

Overall I found the quality of the writing and the production values of this issue of Spectrum SF very impressive. I have a few reservations as to how well the stories succeeded, but generally the work here is worthwhile and entertaining.

Christopher East is a regular contributor to Tangent Online whose short fiction has appeared in a number of genre publications. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.