A review that originally appeared in The Fix #6:-
SPECTRUM SF #9
Edited by Paul Fraser
This issue has an eye catching cover panorama of a future city done in shades of purple by an artist whose name is printed too small to read (possibly Dominic Harman), but otherwise no illustrations. Typos are laudably thin on the ground, with a couple of glaring exceptions; the running order shown in the Table of Contents doesn’t bear much relation to actual pagination, and in the section known as The Archive (a 37-page listing of books and magazines received) a couple of pages have been mysteriously left blank. Elsewhere we have a letter column and a brief editorial, but the bulk of the magazine is taken up with fiction, with a bias towards longer pieces.
‘Thursday’s Child’ is a typical offering from Eric Brown, set in a universe where, thanks to the alien Kethani, people can be brought back to life once they have died, a possibility that is hotly resisted by some on religious grounds. Brown brings this grand concept down to an intimately personal level with the conflict between parents whose child has a terminal illness. The father wants his daughter to live no matter what and the mother believes that to accept the alien implant will endanger the child’s immortal soul, an antipathy that brings to mind not only the attitude to blood doning of certain religious sects but also Simak’s novel Why Call Them Back From Heaven. Brown is excellent as ever at making all this credible and putting a human spin on the events, though the story is let down somewhat by obvious plot devices. Sarah Singleton offers a change of pace with ‘The White Devil’, showing a society in which Jacobean drama has made a comeback and a man has fallen in love with one of the animatronic dolls used to perform the plays. This strange future milieu is convincingly realised and Singleton makes the man’s obsession play out in chilling detail, as his dream becomes a nightmare of his own making. An enjoyable Poesque and claustrophobic offering from a new writer of real promise.
Chris Lawson poses another moral dilemma in ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’, with undetectable drugs that can enhance an athlete’s performance at cost of his life gaining wide acceptance, a story that has much of both nostalgia and humanity, with Lawson’s protagonist engagingly looking back to a more innocent time when playing the game was more important than winning. He ends as a loser, but with dignity intact. Adam Roberts’s ‘The Imperial Army’ is the big numbers story, with a scale that makes Foundation seem small beer. Mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, settling thousands of worlds, but now we are going one on one with the homicidal Xflora and attrition is the only strategy that works. Young men donate their sperm to breed cannon fodder by the billion. Sidlan is one such young man, but with an enquiring mind and a reluctance to settle for state subsidized masturbation as his contribution to the war effort. He enlists and rises swiftly through the ranks, becoming the right hand man of a would be military dictator. This is a story where it’s better to travel than arrive, hugely enjoyable for most of its forty odd pages, with wit and a wealth of incidental invention reminiscent of William Tenn at his satiric best; it’s just that the ending is something of a damp squib, one that leaves us no further forward and with a feeling all that’s gone before is much ado about nothing.
Spectrum SF serializes novels in three parts, and this issue we get the final instalment of ‘The Atrocity Archive’ by Charles Stross. Serialisation is a mixed blessing. Those who like the first episode have an incentive to stay the course, but for those who either don’t like what’s offered or have missed an episode much of the magazine is of limited appeal. ‘The Atrocity Archive’ suffered from this, the effect worsened by the editor’s failure to give a summation of what had gone before. For about the first third of the text I was playing catch up, but Stross more than repays the effort, with a fast paced story set in a universe where science and magic interact, and terrorists summon up demonic entities to do their dirty work. Our hero, an SAS sponsored magician, leads his team into another dimension where the Nazis hold power thanks to black magic, but all is not what it seems. This is much easier going than other stuff I’ve read by Stross, a fast paced adventure romp packed with twists and turns, incidental invention and grittily realised battle scenes. There’s even a romantic interest. It would make a great movie. Just don’t come to it expecting anything deep.
In the editorial Paul Fraser tells us he will have to cut back in future as the magazine is running at a bigger loss than anticipated, which is a pity as on this showing Spectrum SF deserves support. A lot of magazines talk about the old style sensawunda and then get bogged down either in technobabble or amateurish rehashes of ideas that have already been done to death, but Fraser delivers with stories that are both entertaining and thought provoking.