Tangent Reviews

OnSpec, Winter 1996

from Tangent #18, Spring 1997

Here's a quandary for those as like to ponder over them. If a magazine contains two first stories and they are no better and no worse than the other stories in the issue, should one cheer or worry? Does it mean that the more experienced writers aren't growing or that the first-sellers are off to an auspicious start? I'm inclined toward the belief that any worthwhile editor picks stories that are not just barely good but are good period, and any unpublished writer who wants to scale that bar had best be prepared to do so with inches to spare. OnSpec has an editorial collective judge stories in competition format: i.e., blindly, without the writer's name on the manuscript. Perhaps they cancel out one another's weaknesses and blind spots; perhaps this is an approach other small press magazines might want to emulate.

I say this because this issue of OnSpec indeed contains at least two first stories, and I plan to turn on them the identical critical apparatus as the others. I'm betting you can't tell which they are by my comments. The answers will come at the end of this review.

Taking the stories, all short stories by my estimated counts, in order, we begin with "Second Coming," by Heather Fraser. The title is accurate, up to a point: observations of a few days in the first century have allowed scientists to put together a virtual Jesus, sufficiently interactive to be able to hold conversations and observe the modern world. Allison, President of a Theological Students' Society of the Christian variety, thanks her God (literally) by being fortunate enough to get close to the closely guarded little brown Yeshua, close enough to get an extra spin put on her religious teaching. Allison is believable, more so than some of the professors and scientists, and the story, one that needed delicate telling in the extreme, succeeds, I think, at doing everything Fraser wanted.

If I have a qualm it is that even though the point is hammered home that the real Jesus may not fit the image modern society has made, I would expect the real Yeshua to do more than politely shrug at such an edifice as Christianity. The effect is a bit like bringing Torquemada to life in modern-day Israel and have him look around, shrug and say, "Well, I always knew they were industrious."

Kate Riedel's "The Babysitter," is a ghost story in mainstream dress, featuring a murdered young babysitter who sends messages through her drunken mother whenever other children are murdered. Like Fraser's story, this one is told competently and without stumbles. Also like the earlier piece, it is a bit too pat, lacking the frisson of surprise necessary to the best fiction.

"One One," by Preston Hapon, surprised me. Hapon experiments with style, although not language, in using alternating interior monologs to portray two research scientists alone together on Mercury. Each scientist is made the opposite in personality to the other, with predictable results until halfway through, when their attitudes begin to change, and then cross, until each has nearly assumed the other's worldview and then they start to move toward the center in the end. Hapon wisely keeps them from ever truly coming together, allowing just enough change to keep things credible. While I could have wished for a bit more depth - something only a near genius can create in interior monolog - this story will stick with me longer than any of the others.

Kafkaesque is the word for Michael Mirolla's "Changes and Identifications." It's all there: the impenetrable bureaucracy; the guiltless, tortured everyman; the endless symbolism; even a cocoon. I have perhaps gotten too old to appreciate people as symbols, however. Writers who can produce people who are individual, dimensional people will woo me away every time.

Editors, all too often, like to stack almost similar stories one atop the other, a practice that tends to diminish the second of the pair. I was very nearly put off by "Empty Interiors," by Wayne Santos, for no better reason than it too starts with a protagonist pointlessly beleaguered by a symbolic nemesis. I'm glad I stuck it through, for Santos forces his protagonist out into the world, to a friend, and to a resolution. Character development in the classical sense almost always depends upon the interaction of people, as real as writers can make them. Harry and Salvatore are the truest and deepest characters in this issue. I don't for a moment pretend that I understood what Santos was up to, but I did not feel cheated by my lack.

Even editorial collectives nod. Some one of them should have had the sense to tell last-nameless Jocko to start his story with the second line, so that more sensitive readers wouldn't throw the magazine at the wall after smashing their eyeballs on, "'So yer a golly-geologist, are ya?'" The story improves from there (in chorus now: as it would have to) although the dialect remains. (Usually. Few grizzled prospectors, I suspect, use "such as we" in the same sentence as "I woulda kilt.") In truth, "High Moon," (yes, the title needs to go, too), is not a half-bad yarn, mixing ghosts and aliens, and the unsentimental look at the Old West is handled with a impressive level of verisimilitude. Jocko, next time how 'bout a straight western, with just a soupcon of dialect. You show obvious respect for your world and your characters; respect your readers as highly.

I've reviewed these stories in order of their appearance and I hope I have given you at least a suggestion that each story has racheted up the language volume a notch. Allan Lowson's "Mummers" takes it all the way to 11. He works every sentence until it nearly bursts, but they collectively befit characters like Death and Sin and the all-too-human arch-mage, John. In plot, "Mummers" nearly brings the issue full circle, for a second coming of a sort is about to bring a future into hard existence. He ends the issue with a drunken high tempered by the morning after. A fine performance.

Who's who among these? The author notes state explicitly that these were Heather Fraser's and Jocko's first professional sales. My earlier "at least" was occasioned by Wayne Santos' sale-free biography and the omission of a mention of any previous sf sale in Allan Lowson's. Even the least of this issue's stories is at a high level for the small press world, and the better of them are good in any estimation. OnSpec works. I recommend it.

Copyright 1997 by Steve Carper

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