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Editor's Choice: Short Fiction Reviews
by David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award. The intent of this column is to present reviews of selected short fiction that strike Dave's interest as his reading for Tangent continues. If you would like to read more short fiction reviews, try Tangent as it reviews every original story in all American, Canadian, British, and Australian professional SF & F magazines (as well as many others).

For more of David's opinions, we've put together a table of contents for other Editor's Choice columns.

For information on the contents of an issue or for subscription details, you can try the following sites:
Asimov's Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Tomorrow SF
On Spec #31
On Spec #31, Winter 1997
"The Hills" William Southey
"The Reality War" Robert Boyczuk
"The Cherry Grove" Aaron V. Humphrey
"Bullbreaker" Elizabeth Westbrook
"Jaime Spanglish in the Nile" Cory Doctorow
"The Play Time Case" David Chato
"Family Melodies" Laurie Channer
"Twilight of the Real" Wesley Herbert
"The Bone House" Catherine MacLeod
For its first thirty issues On Spec sported the tagline "the Canadian Magazine of Speculative Writing." With this issue it has been replaced in favor of the more all-encompassing "more than just science fiction" which is accurately reflected in this issue's contents, the reader being offered a smorgasbord of fantasy, science fiction, and horror from which to choose.

The issue opens with William Southey's warm-hearted fantasy which tells of a simple shepherd's reward for performing a valuable service for beings living in a shimmering world just beyond "The Hills." Southey offers a fresh perspective on the venerable adage that a dog is indeed a man's best friend.

A fantasy send-up, Robert Boyczuk's "The Reality War," while not entirely successful, definitely has its moments. The price to be paid for practicing Boyczuk's brand of magic leads to all sorts of humorous complications, which he exploits to good effect. I actually chuckled out loud in parts. It skated a little over the top for my tastes, but I enjoyed most of it nonetheless. Points are given for creativity, energy, the humor, and most importantly the attempt. Soft points are reluctantly removed for falling too much in love with some scenes which should have been reworked. Written humor is tough to pull off, is one of the most difficult feats for a writer attempting to appeal to a wide audience, and is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Despite my quibbles, "The Reality War" gave some honest yucks, and is worth a look.

Elizabeth Westbrook's "Bullbreaker" is framed nicely with its surreal overtones, drawing us quickly inside the head of an old woman and the conversations she eventually holds with her deceased husband, and sometimes partially visible granddaughter (is her husband really holding a cantankerous dialogue with her from the beyond or is it all in her mind?, and is she really seeing the ghostly image of her granddaughter in her kitchen, or is she just imagining it?). Juxtapose these alternating "internal" reality shifts with the fact that the old woman is still mentally proficient enough to make a living as one of the hottest audio computer-sex operators on the web (her voice and imagination are both still seductive!), and we have a timeless look at a soul not willing to "go quietly into that dark night" that is at turns sad, touching, and even wistfully funny.

One of three stories I found particularly appealing for one reason or another serves as my first...

Editor's Choice:
"Twilight of the Real" by Wesley Herbert
As companion and counterpoint to the fantasy selections, science fiction is ably represented in Wesley Herbert's effective "Twilight of the Real," one of two such Raymond Chandleresque sf pieces (the other being David Chato's "The Play Time Case"). In thumbnail, it deals with a cryogenically frozen operative of The Bureau -- who is known by various names -- let's use Mister Blue here -- who just happens to be, by his own admission, a "dollop queer." Dollops being the insider name given to the female automatons (aka "Tommy's") who work for The Bureau (via their more primary contact known as the Tin Star), and whose job it is to supply information -- and quite a bit more than mere emotional support -- to their reactivated operatives. Dollops are, in all respects save for a few, totally human, and are individually programmed/updated to love and adore their newly assigned charges unreservedly. In this case, Mister Blue prefers his gorgeous blonde dollop to the real thing (as he has his past dollops), and makes no apologies for it. Her name, when he thinks to ask... is Grace.

Amidst the larger, briefly sketched worldscape of a high-tech future filled with nanotech, bio/computer-implants, and the plague known as the Red Death, our protagonist is eventually forced to choose between betraying some old friends to The Bureau -- for whom he's been unfrozen and sent to track down -- or joining them in their underground search for the makers/designers of the Red Death. Herbert's carefree, saucy prose (not to mention his delightfully devil-may-care attitude toward machine sex) make "Twilight of the Real" a fun short story. To put this piece in proper perspective, it is a traditional plot-oriented piece of genre fiction, with touches of crisp dialogue, and a refreshing insouciance which, coupled with some inventive flourishes, make for a good read.

Turning to horror, we have my second...

Editor's Choice:
"Family Melodies" by Laurie Channer
Laurie Channer's "Family Melodies" is one of a pair of fine little horror stories in this issue, this one quite easily the more revolting of the two. We have a single-parent family whose mother works nights, and three children left alone to fend for themselves during the long evening hours. The youngest girl is a loner who finds solace in her imaginary friend Melody, whom she secretly visits in the nearby park. Thing is, Melody isn't quite as imaginary as her family believes, as innocent little Sage (the aforementioned youngest) has befriended the rotting corpse of another young girl she has found, who has been raped and beaten to death in the park. As poor, warped Sage attempts to disinfect (with her older sister's perfume, and a can of OFF, to keep the growing swarm of flies at bay) and cosmetically enhance the discolored and smelly corpse as the days go by, we are left squirming in our seats until she is found out. But who tortured, raped, and murdered the nameless girl in the first place? Read "Family Melodies" to discover the chilling answer.

A more traditional, yet none the less effective horror tale, is my final...

Editor's Choice:
"The Bone House" by Catherine MacLeod
Over many years, through whispered word of mouth, a forbidding and isolated structure has come to be known simply as The House. It is inhabited by a mysterious young couple known as Marissa and Kevin Bone Keel. Once a year they hold a private and most exclusive auction which ends promptly at the stroke of midnight. They offer strange and outré items for sale, for millions, promising only that the buyers "could have almost anything they wanted." Only the very rich need apply. This is a tale in the grand tradition of the deal-with-the-devil morality yarns, in that something is purchased for a price, but this story relies on its somber atmosphere and the uniqueness of the items in which it trades for its initial appeal. As is to be expected, what one thinks one is purchasing often isn't the same as what one receives, as several wealthy patrons soon discover.

The stage has been artfully set for the surprising kicker to this tale. Following the extravagant auction there is a drawing where one lucky person is given their "fondest wish, granted free of charge." Enter one Emily Chiana, an aging and arthritic former ballerina. She has been outbid for the only item she desperately, with every fiber of her being, desires -- a pair of new legs -- so that she can once more dance and thus recapture, in some small measure, her youth. We feel a sense of relief for Emily when her name is drawn, a delight -- given the disastrous fate of the previous auction 'winners' -- that there seems to be some justice in this nefarious and cold-hearted game of chance.

Emily, as promised, is immediately granted her heart's desire to dance once again. Her final performance is a thing to behold. "The Bone House" is a delicious bit of nastiness.

On Spec was the 1997 winner of Canada's Aurora Award for Best Magazine.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale

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