Beneath Ceaseless Skies #122, May 30, 2013
Reviewed by Dave Truesdale
M. Bennardo’s “The Penitent” is the psychological study of an institutionalized, unnamed–number-identified only–prisoner in an unnamed penitentiary in an undetermined time and place. Serving a fourteen-year sentence for an undisclosed crime, the last four in solitary, he finds one day his cell door unlocked, the prison deserted, no evidence of human or animal life anywhere within his purview. The sole clue as to what has happened comes from a recent newspaper left on a guard’s desk while on one of his timid forays outside of his deserted cell block. Ships at sea are reported foundering and lifeless with no clue to explain the mass disappearances. He fears that whatever has happened to these ships’ crews has now come ashore and accounts for the empty prison and the town beyond its high walls.
While we never discover the answer (it’s not really required for story purposes), and while much of the mental processes of the criminal are reasonably accurate for such a situation–the flights and fancies of the sensory-deprived mind, the paranoia, etc.–I couldn’t understand his final choice, where a wrong (delusional?) decision on his part insures locking himself in his small cell with no hope of escape for he has thrown away the key!
Or not. For if all we are given as seen through the prisoner’s eyes is a delusion, a lie, then the events of the story are false and the prisoner is indeed rather touched in the head. Evidence for this is presented when we are told that his daily meal is somehow slid through the slot in his cell door even though the prison is empty.
If the author’s intent was to emphasize how long-term isolation can decay the mind, confusing reality with delusion, and how this manifests in the institutionalization of a long-incarcerated prisoner (he never makes any real effort to escape but ends up returning to the comfort of the known–the womb of his cell each night), then he has succeeded, his tale has fulfilled its purpose.
“The Penitent” also recalls stories of Soviet gulags the likes of which bring to mind Dostoyevski’s Notes from Undergound. It’s always fun to speculate on an author’s inspiration or references, and in this case I’ll toss out the perhaps totally erroneous set of parallels that, in this story, the prisoner has been in isolation four years and incarcerated for another ten, making the total fourteen years. Dostoyevski was imprisoned for four years and wrote Notes from Undergound a decade later, totaling fourteen years. Coincidence? Most likely. But given the subject matter of the story as well as the possible numerical parallels, it’s not totally out of the question. And it is fun to speculate, whether you miss the target altogether or sometimes hit the bullseye.
Dana Beehr’s “Dreams of Peace” also deals with the uncertain nature of reality but in a very different manner than that of “The Penitent.” Young Chaladon is the last of her kind, the Deep Dancers. She and two of her creche-mates have undertaken a quest to stay ahead of the Ever-storm ravaging their world, their journey’s seeming end to be found at the Edge of the World. Along the way they are tempted several times to give up their quest, the temptations preying on their hopes and dreams, promising them personal happiness to sway them from their overall goal.
Chaladon alone remains. Weary, she takes refuge in a long-ruined, deserted town to spend the night. When she awakes she finds the town restored, including its inhabitants. The magic veil she wears informs her that everything she sees is an illusion, as real as it looks and feels to her senses. At this point we are reminded of Ray Bradbury’s story from The Martian Chronicles, “April 2000: The Third Expedition,” for the town is brought to life as it once was–and then made even more real from her memories and desires–including the existence of the man she once loved long before her days of wandering. Soon enough, she is tempted almost beyond her ability to resist, and knows she would find peace living with the man she loves, and the daughter whom she didn’t know she had (how this is possible is neatly explained). Does Chaladon reject everything she desires in her life, including the personal peace of settling down and living a wonderful illusion, or does she decide to remain strong, keeping true to her larger, more important goal?
Nicely wrought (meaning the prose was of professional quality and line-by-line it read well), “Dreams of Peace” nevertheless left me lukewarm for some inexplicable reason; perhaps a trimming of its11,000-word novelette length would have done the trick and given the ending more punch? I can’t say. It struck me as one of those “nice,” but middle-of-the-road stories we’ve all read, enjoyed at some level while reading them, but then find slipping from memory rather sooner than expected. Nothing really wrong with them, of course, they just fail to maintain the hoped-for level of enthusiasm as the afterglow of the experience quickly fades.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.