William Browning Spencer,
The Ocean & All Its Devices
(Subterranean Press, 2006)

The Ocean & All Its Devices is a rich, lyrical exploration of William Browning Spencer's imagination.

But, while the ocean of the title story provides a deep, dark setting for this collection's first story, Spencer's most remarkable explorations take place in the realms of future cyberspace.

This is Spencer's first collection of stories since 1993's The Return of Count Electric & Other Stories, a collection I unfortunately have overlooked to date. Still, with just nine stories, The Ocean proves a splendid introduction to a writer whose short fiction encompasses more satisfying world-building and character development than many a novel. Spencer paints his stories with a subtle hue of horror that is often more unsettling than frightening, and that lingers in the back of your thoughts long after you've turned your attentions elsewhere.

In the title story, the owner of a seaside resort uncovers a bargain between the powers that lurk beneath the ocean's surface and a family that frequents his hotel. In "The Oddskeeper's Daughter," Spencer gives us a world where events turn on a system of chance -- but where a powerful love may be able to beat the odds in an all-or-nothing final roll. "The Death of the Novel" demonstrates how the world can turn on the power of words.

"Downloading Midnight" is the first of Spencer's cybertales, and it gifts us with a world where virtual reality is as real and as solid as the material plane of ordinary existence. In this story, a popular virtual program has taken on a life of its own, wreaking havoc on the vulnerable underbelly of Spencer's foreign, yet weirdly familiar cyberlandscape.

"Your Faithful Servant" introduces a strangely alien concept to the service industry. "The Foster Child" examines its protagonist from two angles; in our world, she is an idiot savant whose only form of communication is through poetry she's never read nor heard but can recite perfectly, while in another setting she could be a savior.

Spencer returns to his cybernetic creation in "The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness," which addresses virtual addiction, treatment and withdrawal -- and the lengths to which an industry might go to keep its customers online. "The Lights of Armageddon" presents a low-tech means for the fairy realm -- or darker settings -- to invade our world. And, lastly, "The Essayist in the Wilderness" is the amusing tale of a fledgling naturalist whose observations of a "crayfish" colony are far darker and creepier than he could ever realize.

Reading The Ocean & All Its Devices has left me wondering why Spencer has so selfishly deprived me of his writing over the years. These stories -- rich, deep and fully realized -- are the work of a writer who should, in a fairer world, be far better known and, we can only hope, far more prolific.

by Tom Knapp
10 February 2007

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