May 2006

Colleen Mondor

fiction

The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer

It is pretty difficult to review a short story collection without going on and on about the particular stories that the reviewer enjoyed the most and giving the others only cursory attention. The thing is, my favorites might not be the ones that other readers would be most attracted to, so it’s a bit of a test to see if I can let readers know enough about every story in The Ocean and All Its Devices so they can make a solid decision as to whether it will be their cup of tea or not. Or I could just say that William Browning Spencer’s stories all rocked and leave it at that.

The first story in any collection is always the icebreaker -- it has to be strong enough to keep a reader for the rest of the book. In Browning’s case, he begins with the title story, a mystery that includes a seaside hotel, a strange couple who visit with their daughter only during the off season and a man, George Hume, who finds himself embroiled in events that rapidly show him things about the ocean that he could have lived quite happily without ever knowing. There were several things about “The Ocean and All Its Devices” that appealed to me, most particularly that I was consistently surprised, such as by what happened to Mr. Franklin while he was walking on the beach and the secret that his wife later reveals. Overall, it was the feeling of deep mystery in this story that impressed me; it reminded me of something Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet might have written, albeit without the fantastical elements.

“The Numbers” provides a very interesting mix between gambling and science fiction, along with a lesson in being grateful for what you have. With “Death of a Novel” Spencer gives us one dandy of a revenge story and mixes in his opinions about the games and clichés of academia as well. And as for “Your Faithful Servant,” well, that’s a classic, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

The world of virtual reality is the setting for both “Downloading Midnight” and “The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness.” Both explored interesting aspects of a future that we are getting closer to experiencing first hand, but it was the horrible and all too human elements of “Midnight” that really hit close to home for me. The more we all become enraptured with reality television that is nothing like the real world (and duck and hide from what is really going on around us), the more realistic the punishment inflicted upon the virtual character of Zera seems.

“The Lights of Armaggedon” ends perfectly, even if it’s not the way you want things to work out, and “The Foster Child” conjures up lovely images from old poetry, and even gives me a reason to be glad that I had to memorize “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in high school. (Because, you know, actually reading it off a piece of paper just seemed silly to my forward thinking teacher. Memorization is such a better use of your time!) I should also mention that I couldn’t help but picture the magician from “Armageddon” as a member of Ray Bradbury’s mad carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes which, intentional or not, made me love the story even more. With “The Essayist in the Wilderness” I wasn’t sure if it served itself more as a stab at wannabe writers everywhere (especially the young and silly ones) or as the excellent creepy tale of flora and fauna that it obviously is. (Another reminder of Bradbury here, with his nasty mail order mushrooms in “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms In Your Cellar!”) Jonathan is so perfectly pompous and arrogant in “Essayist” -- as only a certain type of academic and writer can be -- that I almost felt sorry for him. Of course “almost” is the operative word there; some characters just aren’t written to engender a ton of reader sympathy.

All in all, The Ocean and All Its Devices is a great collection of the kind of literary speculative fiction that gets lost on the store shelves, or worse yet, never even makes it there. I’m always surprised that authors who excel at this sort of writing are not well known, because they certainly have a lot to offer readers who like their stories with plenty of plot and not a lot of sitting around in contemplation of life, love and whether or not someone is pretty enough. Spencer puts his characters in situations that the rest of us can not imagine but never loses sight of the innate humanness of their experience. He is a most compelling and unusual author and provides an excellent example of all the greatness that short science fiction and fantasy have to offer. (And his book shows yet again what Subterranean Press is doing right and why more readers need to aware of this outstanding small press.)

I was quite impressed with what Spencer did with this collection and found his interesting introduction on the perils of the short story writer to be quite illuminating as well. I was transported to different places with Spencer’s words; places I never even knew existed. What a delight to find an author who is willing to travel so far for his readers. I hope he keeps at it so we can all take these trips again.

The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer
Subterranean Press
ISBN: 1596060476
195 pags