Throughout 2022, I’ll be reviewing short stories. Some of these may be classics, others forgotten. The two things that all will have in common is that they are part of my personal collection and they will be selected through a randomization process. What works and authors I look at will be entirely selected by a roll of the dice.
One of the magazines in my collection is the first issue of Tails of Wonder, dated Spring 1993 and edited by Nicolas Samuels. According to a card tucked into the issue, the magazine was previously called (or meant to be called Sharp Tooth), but a name change occurred prior to publication. The magazine does not seem to have any existence on the internet that was just beginning to appear when it was released and most of the authors who appeared in its pages do not seem to have gone on to publish anything else. I have not been able to tell if there was ever a Tails of Wonder issue #2.
Among the authors who did continue to publish after their appearance in Tails of Wonder was Edo van Belkom, who had already been publishing fiction for three years, under both his own name and the pseudonym Evan Hollander. His contribution to Tails of Wonder is the short story “S.P.S.” He would reprint the story in his 1998 collection Death Drives a Semi.
By 1993, the idea of virtual reality was mainstream enough that the next year the television show Mad About You included an episode in which one of the main characters decided to invest in a virtual reality device. In van Belkom’s story, “S.P.S.” stands for “sensory perception simulators” and are beginning to be marketed to the general public. The story is told from the point of view of the woman whose husband, Marty, has decided to buy one of the units.
Right from the beginning of the story, with the opening line, “My husband died during childbirth,” the reader knows this story isn’t going to have a particularly happy ending. However in the slightly over two pages the story runs, van Belkom manages to accomplish a great deal with both technological extrapolation and character.
The extrapolation is based around the S.P.S. unit. Not just a pair of VR goggles, the device is something that Marty can actually climb into. Depending on what he can experience, he can load a variety of different cassettes, each programmed with a different experience. In addition to showing him where he is, the device applies pressure and other stimulation to his body to help him experience the physical sensation of being where the cassette claims he is.
Unfortunately, from the character side, it is clear that Marty and his wife do not have the best relationship. She wasn’t thrilled with the purchase of the S.P.S. initially and as it began to take over Marty’s life, she disliked it even more. However, the S.P.S. wasn’t the root of their problems. When she decided she wanted a child, and Marty was opposed to it, she simply threatened to destroy his S.P.S. if should couldn’t have a baby, which led to perhaps one of the most intentionally mechanical love scenes in science fiction literature.
The two continue to live their separate lives, with Marty focused on his S.P.S. and the narrator on her pregnancy. But the miracle of birth is one of those moments that can bring people together. When she goes into a six hour labor, he promptly climbs into his S.P.S. and runs a birthing simulation, working to extend his experience to match his wife’s. The problem occurred at the end when the S.P.S. shot 500 volts into Marty at the moment of birth, causing a massive coronary.
Van Belkom handles both parts of the story well. Marty’s dependency and addiction to the use of the S.P.S. may play on fears about rising new immersive technologies, but at the same time, it is based on the actual responses from people who have addictive personalities. Given that the two are in an apparently loveless marriage with few commonalities, Marty’s retreat into the world of the S.P.S. is understandable.
If van Belkom falls down, it has to do with the narrator’s reactions to events. When discussing having sex to have their child, she comments that he had 567 sex cassettes and she “wasn’t jealous, how could [she] be? How could flesh and blood compete with direct and acute nerve and muscle stimulation,” which further demonstrates how distanced the two were emotionally, since many people have noted jealousy over virtual affairs, seeing them as an emotional, if not physical betrayal. The narrator also turns to S.P.S. herself following her husband’s death and the birth of their child, perhaps seeing the device as a savior from her loveless marriage, but potentially leading to an absentee parent for her infant.
Despite being in a minor ‘zine, van Belkom’s story is ambitious and mostly succeeds in what he seems to have set out to do. Given how Tails of Wonder has disappeared, it is nice that van Belkom was able to rescue this story from oblivion by including it in his later collection.
Steven H Silver is an eighteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.