If "Spirit Dog" has a failing it is the creature of the title. It's almost as if by adding an intentionally demonic element at the very end (whether or not it be nothing more than Mundy's fanciful vision) the rest of the story loses some of its vividness and energy; it made me wonder if I had misread the tale and taken the wrong approach from the very beginning.

Of course, this may be Dann's objective, to make us look at the events described in another, greyer, light, but I can't help but feel that it's unnecessary - the story already shimmers with a kind of supernatural energy that is both exciting and rewarding.

Stephen Dedman must have an adrenalin drip permanently stuck in a vein in one of his arms. He is, perhaps, this country's most prolific SF short story writer.

"Founding Fathers" (Science Fiction Age, 03/98) is science fiction-cum-detective-cum-moral tale. As science fiction it works well, the future it describes being intriguing enough for me to want to learn more; the detective bit is also well done, and provides the story's tension and drive; the moral side I'm less certain of, because I'm not at all sure Dedman was actually trying to moralise here, but it just comes across that way.

Phil Carmichael is the chief policeman - "censor" - of a whites-only colony called ... gulp ... Ivory, on an otherwise uninhabited planet. The colony is visited by visitors from Earth seeking permission to build a way station either on the planet or in the same system for a new kind of faster-than-light star ship. The colonists, protective of their isolation, are wary but not overtly hostile. One of the emissaries from Earth then offers to help Ivory solve its earliest and greatest crime, the destruction of the colony's embryo bank.

There are no real surprises in the crime's solution, or the reasons behind why the crime was committed, but Dedman's writing is good enough to keep the reader interested until the end.

I couldn't help feel that "Founding Fathers" would have been better as a much longer work, a novella or novel, which would have given room for the development of Carmichael and other characters, and a more detailed background to the formation of Ivory, which just seems a little unlikely in the necessarily curtailed explanation offered in the story.

"Target of Opportunity" (Asimov's, 06/98) is a different kettle of fish - an almost perfect 1950s SF tale. This isn't meant as a backhanded compliment. In less than 5,000 words, Dedman delivers a great read, believable characters and a wonderful idea, all wrapped up in a gem of a story that leaves you wishing it was 5,000 words longer.

Time travel is a reality, and Maia City is a major stopover point located temporally in the Cretaceous. The story is told by one of Maia's guides, assigned to look after a visiting scientist, Sondra, and her boyfriend, Kevin, a rich, muscle-bound heir more interested in hunting than studying the local fauna.

Sondra is interested in observing troodons, who are rumoured to have been sighted using tools. Sondra gets her wish, and rumours are confirmed when ... but then, why should I give the whole thing away?

"Target of Opportunity" is a wonderful yarn. Go read it.

"Transit" (Asimov's, 03/98) was the last story I read in the mountain load sent to me by a certain editor. I was starting to get jaded, happy at finding twelve stories I liked, but increasingly disappointed at the stories that should never have never gotten into print without a severe reworking by their authors, or a severe pruning by their editors.

So, I started reading "Transit". I liked the premise immediately, was intrigued by the point-of-view character, the charming changes in language necessitated by the future Dedman had envisaged. I was tired - dead tired - but I couldn't stop reading the story.

"Transit" is a love story. It is also one of the best SF stories I have read in the last five years.

Alex lives on a planet occupied solely by humans who are hermaphrodites - "mafs". Alex's life takes a tumble when a girl from al-Gohara, a planet settled by Muslims, joins er class. (Oh, yeah. No gender pronouns amongst the mafs. It's "e" for she/he, and "er" for his/her.) Alex is immediately taken with Aisha - she is different, attractive, and new.

Alex forces er company on Aisha, trying to break down the girl's shyness, to make some kind of contact with her. Aisha cedes reluctantly, overcome by a planet inhabited by people who, if not actually abhorrent in the view of her religion, certainly must seem abnormal and unnatural. But connect they do, and the relationship they develop together is strengthened by Alex's need to understand Aisha and her culture, and Aisha's need to come to terms with her own past and troubled inheritance.

The reader is never certain at what point their feelings for each other blossom into love, and this is testament to Dedman's skill as a writer. In real life most of us are unaware at first when we fall in love, and Dedman never lets his characters say what they're feeling simply for the benefit of the reader. There are clues, there are insinuations, but the story is so well crafted, so well restrained, that it is not until near the end that we realise just how much Alex and Aisha mean to each other.

Like Egan with "Oceanic", Dedman has filled out his story with a superbly realised future, one that seems both plausible and even desirable, a neat trick considering he's dealing with changes not only to the way we work biologically, but also culturally.

It would have been easy to write "Transit" with a cool elegance, and then fluff it at the end, to steer the narrative towards mawkish parody, but Dedman's control is tight all the way through. Although the last couple of pages are a confirmation of the power of love and how it can change lives, there isn't a sentimental tear in sight.

"Transit" is simply a great story.

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©1998 Simon Brown.