Challenging Destiny, #23, November 2006

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“Her Watcher” by J.R. Campbell
“The Vampire Who Doted on His Chicken” by Ken Rand
“Bread” by Jennifer Bosworth
“The Message” by Richard R. Harris
“Service With a Smile” by Craig Q. Rose
“Sunset Manor” by Monte Davis
“Suck of Clay, Whir of Wheel” by Pat Esden

The opening story of Challenging Destiny #23 deals with an issue not seen often, or at least often enough, in science fiction: the ramifications of interstellar space travel when time dilation means you’re leaving behind everything and everyone you ever knew, forever. “Her Watcher” by J.R. Campbell doesn’t deal with the Big Idea or the Major Discovery; it’s just people, many of whom seem to be centuries old from a planetary observer’s perspective, working day to day and doing the best they can. Sooner or later newcomers will try to commit suicide once it sinks in that there’s no going home, and so each of them is surreptitiously assigned a “watcher”—someone who keeps a suicide watch on them, or at least makes sure that if the suicide can’t be prevented then it doesn’t take out the whole ship too.

Campbell does a good job here of conveying the feeling of the weight of responsibility on Collin, the latest watcher, and the fact that the watchee, Victela, has random ups and downs that suddenly seem to gain much more import. Collin’s on-edge nerves and exhaustion from the watching are well written, along with the personal attachment that comes with getting to know someone so intimately—even when they are unaware that you know them so well. Admittedly I would have preferred Collin figure out when Victela’s suicide attempt was going to happen through a less obvious means than he does, but overall I thought the story was a well-rounded look at one of the problems human beings could face as long-term astronauts.

“The Vampire Who Doted on His Chicken” by Ken Rand is a simple and straightforward tale of a well-known vampire who not only has “reformed”—he’s eschewed human blood for the pleasing taste of chicken blood—but has moved out to the American West to stay ahead of lynch mobs (and mobs who might want him strung up for chicken thievin’).  The conflict is predictable—the humans who do a good deed by letting the vampire hide out with them for a while find themselves trapped with him by a blizzard that both cuts off their movements and prevents their food-lacking town from getting the next supply run—but the humor helps the story through.

What disappointed me about the story, though, was that the author seemed to miss some golden opportunities. What we see in Rand’s story tells me the author knows what he’s doing when it comes to humor, and yet it feels rushed—the conflict is settled a little too amicably, the conclusion seems a little too neat. Nevertheless, I always appreciate seeing humor in a speculative magazine, and enjoyed this story and the premise both.

“Bread” by Jennifer Bosworth is the odd story out in this issue: there really isn’t a speculative element in it, except for the main character’s mother, a Master Baker, talking about the “magic” of their breadmaking being in their fingers. It’s a sentimental tale revolving around Harper, the bakers’ daughter, and bread—or rather, sensuous details of bread and its baking that left me hungry—and what happens when the handsome young grandson of a nearby resident Harper loves and admires blows into town. There really aren’t any surprises here, and no doubt some readers will be put off by what may feel like an inevitable conclusion (if not the lack of speculative elements), but I found it a pleasant read and very much liked the character of Harper.

Richard R. Harris’s story, “The Message,” is grounded in the intriguing premise of another type of watcher: this one keeps an eye out for “crossovers,” ships from alternate realities that occasionally pop in and out within a certain zone of Earth’s solar system. The story begins with the discovery of a 1970-styled Apollo lunar lander that somehow has made its way to the Outer Planets despite evidence of an internal explosion. The main character, Charlie, realizes that this spacecraft was manned and breaks protocol—she implies that the purpose of watching is to make sure there is no cross-reality contamination—to try offering assistance.

There were a few logic problems I had with the story, such as the operations of the ship, which I could overlook except for the fact that they were crucial to the story’s conclusion. However, Charlie makes a deep connection with the astronauts as one explorer to others; she admires their courage and their sense of wonder greatly, and in this part the story shines. I was left feeling that while the more tragic element of the story could have been avoided, Charlie’s actions were perfectly realistic given what we know about her, and that she could not have done anything less than she did.

I have a weakness for dystopian stories, and Craig Q. Rose’s “Service With a Smile” thus hooked me from the beginning. After the “Collapse,” only the super-rich were able to continue on with the trappings of normal existence, while everyone else…the main character’s bleak “service with a smile” existence, serving the aforementioned rich folks with smiles and, more importantly, nothing carrying even the remote possibility of making them feel guilt. The descriptions of the self-control they need to survive are painfully good—by the time Rose gets to the line “You can’t just smile; you have to mean it,” you feel as if you’ve been punched in the gut. The disconnect between the rich and…everyone else…is well done (particularly the fact that the rich refer to the Collapse as merely the “Downturn”), and there is a fine tense moment when the character is made an offer he can neither refuse nor deny without terrible consequences. 

And then…the story ends quite abruptly once the choice is made. The rest of the narrative had been crafted with such a consistent power that I had expected something a bit less—I would say prosaic, but as mentioned above, even prosaic lines elsewhere in the story are loaded with brass knuckles while the last paragraph felt flat. Which is a shame, because the build-up made it a serious contender for being the strongest work in the issue. (On the other hand, the author’s bio points out that this is his first published story, so I suspect we’ll be seeing more of his work in the future.)

It’s not every day when you can put “fun adventure story” and “112-year-old character” in the same sentence, but Monte Davis’s “Sunset Manor” is that, and more. Ebner Davis is the very elderly protagonist living in what amounts to a space station nursing home orbiting the Earth. When his memory is clear, it’s sharp; when it’s “foggy,” he sometimes can’t remember the name of the pretty blue ball beneath them. But really, what he wants to remember most of all is his wife, Kori, whom he was madly in love with and died eighty years before—or so his muddled memory (and everyone else) believes.

Ebner is a rare character who can make you laugh and mourn—sometimes in nearly the same paragraph—as you piece together his life and witness the shell of his body and brain today. But when it turns out that his wife may not actually be dead, his adventure begins—and it’s surprisingly easy for Ebner and his old friend and fellow resident, Donald Roach, to find an adventure when Kori’s very existence may be at stake, even for two centenarians in a space station. This story was the strongest in the collection for me based on its mix of sympathetic characters, lightheartedness played well against sad seriousness, and the personal conflicts Ebner is both facing now and remembers from decades past.

The final story, “Suck of Clay, Whir of Wheel” by Pat Esden, looks to be a second piece whose ubiquitous setting centers around something inanimate—in this case, clay. Whether or not the clay is inanimate is a matter for debate; its properties, different for different people but all involving stealing something precious, are present regardless. For Meg, clay means the creation of pottery, and she gives her heart and soul to their making; for the gypsy Lanny, it means a would-be jailer that would keep him from roaming the world, at least until he finds something worth staying in one place for.

The setting in the story is well done; at times I could almost feel the winter-cold clay squishing in my hands. I groaned with the appearance of a gypsy character—they still seem overdone and stereotyped in a lot of fantasy fiction, but Lanny’s character was just developed enough for him to avoid being two-dimensional. Meg herself had a passion for her pottery that anyone who is passionate about doing what they love can understand. And her passion—both for her work and the constant worry about being paid enough to keep doing it, a constant realistic conflict with Lanny—rang true. Meg’s moment of truth might have seemed forced if the story hadn’t been handled quite so well, but here it has the feel of someone being given a split-second choice of being able to grab onto the destiny she wants, and by the climax, Meg has been portrayed as courageous enough on several different levels so that it seems only right when she grabs the solution to what otherwise would have been a deadly problem. Nicely done.