Wednesday, 1 September 2004

On Spec: The Canadian Magazine Of The Fantastic vol 16 no. 1 (#56)

Copper Pig Writers Society.
ISSN: 0843-476X.

This particular issue of 'On Spec' is a mix of unusual non-generic fiction and non-fiction articles, though the magazine leans heavily in favour of the former. Just to be contrary, however, I'll give the non-fiction a quick once-over before moving on to the meat of the magazine.

Issue 56 boasts an editorial that imparts to the reader everything that stand-up comedy can teach writers about writing. A tenuous link at the best of times and the editorial suffers a little by it. All told, this is little more than submission guidelines for aspiring writers plus jokes. The points it raises are valid and will generally be useful for those rising stars of prose who have as yet managed - somehow - to avoid such rules.

The only other official non-fiction is a dialogue discussing the merits of 'The Lord Of The Rings' films. Frankly the debate will sail merrily over the heads of anybody lacking a substantial knowledge of cinematography, both its history and technicalities. This seems like it belongs in a degree-level Film Studies course, not in a magazine dedicated to fantasy - only through the nature of the films under discussion is any link maintained. The article seems more interested in discussing the trilogy's cinematic merit rather than its success or failure as an adaptation of the genre's pivotal work.

Classified as fiction yet giving the impression of a very tongue-in-cheek non-fiction article, we'll call 'Alternative Therapy For Your Computer' from Karl Johanson a crossover piece and leave it at that. In brief, it explains how homeopathic and spiritual remedies can be used to clear up your PC's bugs and crashes. As a satire of alternative medicine it performs admirably and is guaranteed to raise a chuckle or two, but the piece lacks subtlety for the most part. The author's need to explain for the hard-of-thinking those jokes that aren't blindingly obvious is particularly irritating in places.

Oh well, on to the real fiction. Nine pieces ranging from half a side to near twenty pages, their quality as variable as their length. Trailing the pack is Michael Brockington's 'Jumpstart Heart', a bizarre and jumbled piece with a sideline in time-travel via the second law of thermodynamics. That's about all I could grasp from the story - everything else blurs together in a nonsensical mess, though the dialogue is fairly sharp. 'Printed Matter' from Cliff Burns is a little better, at least managing to maintain a sense of coherence. Taking the form of one correspondent's side of a conversation-by-post, it suffers from the unpleasant character that the letters reveal. The even more depraved silent partner in these dialogues comes across well through the responses he generates, a sign of good writing on Burns' part, but the material itself is not up to par.

A great step upwards in terms of quality, Catherine MacLeod's 'Stick House' is a strange tale of death delayed and the problems that creates. The situation is little more than window dressing. It's the relationship between the narrator and her lover that takes centre stage, portrayed with touching sincerity and an impressive talent for creating memorable phrases. 'View Of A Remote Country' by Karen Traviss, on the other hand, is difficult to read but rewarding. Its everyman hero is somebody easily identified with and while the tale is slow, the dialogue has an air of realism about it.

At only half a page and a couple of hundred words, 'Ribbons Lightning' by Joanne Merriam is over before it's really got going. As a snapshot it succeeds, painting a picture both beautiful and dark with admirable brevity.

Todd Bryanton's 'Ruby Bloom' is, by contrast, one of the longer pieces. An intriguing glimpse into the life of a psychotic, it is made even more fascinating by taking the point of view of the patient himself. I'm not going to spoil the twist ending which throws the whole story into a new light, but suffice to say that the reader is kept guessing throughout. The depiction of paranoia and numerous other psychoses are also excellently done. It all seems to make so much sense, from the patient's point of view.

Six down, three to go. 'Reunion' is up next, by Jack Skillingstead. Like most of the pieces in this magazine it's unconventional to say the least. Something of a redemption story as a cold-hearted businessman revisits his past in a very accurate sense of the word. The story feels somewhat padded out with over-exacting description but the characterisation is solid as a rock and the plot's clever enough to make it an absorbing read.

'Resurrection Radio' from Patrick Johanneson is another quality piece. Thought-provoking and original, it's a fresh look at spirituality from a very down to earth position, written with real empathy. Its ending is particularly intelligent, the sort of thing to send you back to the beginning hunting for clues. Suddenly, it's staring you in the face, but you'd never suspect. Foreshadowing at its best.

Last but not least, we have 'Seven Years' by Megan Crewe. Another of the short pieces, it nonetheless manages with remarkable economy to outdo the other works in this magazine. A bittersweet moment from the life of a Frankenstein-esque scientist, it is poignant to the point of heartbreak. A shame it's not longer but then, maybe, that would have spoiled it. Either way, I'd like to read more of Crewe's work which means it has to be a success.

So there you go. A mixed bunch but sound overall and containing a couple of gems that give it enough lustre to catch the eye and keep you interested. If you can get your hands on this, I'd suggest you do so. There's certainly nothing of the conventional about On Spec #56.

This review was originally written for