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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

The Portal Archive: Bull Spec, Issue #3, Autumn 2010

Bull Spec is a quarterly print magazine (also available as a PDF) published in North Carolina by Samuel Montgomery. It’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, though by page count there is a lot more nonfiction in this issue, consisting of several articles, interviews, and a book review section. There is also a graphic story (not reviewed here because it is in multiple parts), and there are several pieces of full-page art. Given the heft of this magazine, I expected more fiction, but the articles are interesting and the magazine as a whole is well produced.

“The Story of Listener and Yu-en” by Lavie Tidhar

“Turning Back the Clock” by David Steffen

“Cityscape” by Denali Hyatt

“Like Parchment in the Fire” by Katherine Sparrow

“You’re Almost Here” by Melinda Thielbar

There are five stories in this issue, most quite short. The first is “The Story of Listener and Yu-en” by Lavie Tidhar. A long time after the end of humans, talking dogs and cats roam the earth. Listener is a dog (airship pilot); Yu-en is a cat (smuggler of some sort). They meet in a “milk den” and fall in love. They go in search of treasure and encounter the Green Menace (you don’t want to know). It wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s short; it’s written in the style of a folktale; I’m sure some people will find it cute. I didn’t. It’s well written, a good example of this kind of story, most likely. It’s just not a kind of story I like.

The next story, “Turning Back the Clock” by David Steffen, was a short fiction twist on a time travel trope, with one aspect I don’t think I’ve seen before. In this future, time zones are segregated from each other because time is actually running at different rates in each one. So if you cross the edge of the Eastern time zone, you go back in time an hour. Crossing between zones is seriously frowned upon (by which I mean with guns). The story concerns a man and his wife. Something horrible happens to her, and he has one hour to save her life by reaching the time zone’s edge and warning her. I don’t want to give the story away, but let’s just say crossing the time zone involves more than just pissing off the government.

There is a reason novellas are considered one of the best, if not the best, period, lengths for science fiction stories. It takes time to describe a world, put characters in it, and enfold the reader in a tale of elsewhere/elsewhen. This story just didn’t have the room to unspool at all. Even the time zone idea, while simple enough, just wasn’t explained to the depth that might have made it work. I think more length might have helped. The protagonist’s pain is real enough. The plot moves right along. The fact that the main character has a plane is a bit convenient. But OK, I was willing to let that go. But not explaining the main reason he can even try this (the time-zone  thing)? That’s a pretty serious flaw. The best really short fiction of this type has pre-made novelty in it. Someone goes back in time, but they just appear, and they go to a place or time the reader already knows. Some part of the story, the setting, or the main character, or both, or maybe the trope itself, has to be almost prefabricated for a really short story to work well.

“Cityscape” by Denali Hyatt manages better and is also too short, but in a way I find easier to forgive. The main character is a kid traveling with his family by car across a planet with no spin. Nomads migrate every few months to stay in a tolerable climate. There are large cities at the poles, between day and night. I can’t quite remember if this explanation makes sense or not, I think it does if the planet is tilted in a certain way. In any case, it comes off believably in the story. It’s an interesting world, well presented. The kid is tired of migrating and dreams of life in the city. This is a great beginning to a longer tale, I really wanted to keep reading and find out more about this world. As it is now, not that much happens. It’s a great setup though.

“Like Parchment in the Fire” by Katherine Sparrow, a cleverly melded set of historical fictions, is the standout story of the issue. It’s also the longest. The story alternates between St. George’s Hill, Surrey England in 1649 and the Haight in San Francisco in 1966.  In the first time period, Winstanley founds the early communist (not sure that’s really a good term to use, given the time period) Diggers, farming land, taking back the commons. This would be Gerrard Winstanley, who really did start planting vegetables one day in 1649. The 1966 story is about Peter Berg, who founded the 1966 Diggers, a counterculture group. In the story they hand out free food, fake free money, and such. It’s the sort of thing they really did do, from what little I’ve read. I like stories that make me go read other things. Each of the first few story snippets ends with a sighting by one man of the other’s wavering form. I don’t want to tell you too much more. I didn’t know any of the history when I read the story, and I didn’t need to. This is very well done, and I hope it finds a larger audience in an anthology or best of collection.

“You’re Almost Here” by Melinda Thielbar is written in the second person. The story is set in a somewhat dystopian, shallow extrapolated future, where the bazillionth Harry Potter sequel is declared to be “stunningly original” in an ad, for instance. The main character is a writer who uses an AI to create eye-catching blog posts. He just types in a few thoughts and the AI does the rest. He tries to write a book by hand, and it fails. He creates an AI to write another book, and it’s a bestseller. The combination of a pretty downbeat setting and a distancing second-person voice didn’t do it for me. Many of the extrapolations are reasonable (except for the AIs, but I suppose that depends on your beliefs about the future of AI), if a bit depressing. The polemic overwhelms the story, in the end. Too bad, because messages resonate longer when it’s the other way around.

October 25, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

2 Comments

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  2. Thanks very much for the review and thoughts. I am also a great fan of the novella length (Panverse Publishing’s all-novella anthologies have been wonderful for that the past couple of years, by the way) but just can’t afford to publish stories of that length. On “Turning Back the Clock” when I first read it, I had the same question: “Why, why, oh why is the government hell-bent on stopping people from crossing TIME ZONES of all things?” For me it fit a definition of “science fiction mystery” that I recall reading somewhere, but not where exactly: “you get to change one, just one, law of physics” … I’m so, so glad you liked Sparrow’s story. I certainly echo your hope that an anthology will pick it up.

    Comment by Sam M-B | March 7, 2011


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