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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Analog, May, 2009

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“Among the Tchi” by Adam-Troy Castro

“Quickfeathers” by Alexis Glynn Latner

“Rendezvous at Angels Thirty” by Tom Ligon

“The Sleeping Beauties” by Robert R. Chase

“A Measure of Devotion” by Shane Tourtellotte

“A Story, With Beans” by Steven Gould

“The Brother on the Shelf” by Philip Edward Kaldon

Reviewed by Aaron Bradford Starr

Isolation and separation are complex conditions, each having smooth gradients leading from complete connection to utter loneliness. As literary themes, both offer deep wells of inspiration, as the May issue of Analog demonstrates. Each story this month touches on or springs from some form of isolation, and whether this was an intentional editorial feat or just the mysterious workings of well-tuned instinct, the end result is a collection of diverse tales that work together very well.

It’s hard to beat science fiction for the ability to strand characters unimaginable distances from others, but the distances need not only be measured spatially. The gulf can also be bridged in many different ways, as these authors demonstrate, through finding common ground with distant places, times, and points of view. But it is the character’s first attempts at staying connected that resonate the most, those failed efforts that relate so well to the frustrations of daily life. Perhaps that is what makes these stories so satisfying to read: the hope that we, too, might press on, and in the end span the unbridgeable chasms that sometimes seem to separate us, no matter how close we may be to each other.

First up is “Among the Tchi” by Adam-Troy Castro, which takes the meaning of alien in a new and interesting direction. Writers tend to enjoy characters who are themselves writers, usually because this allows some demonstration of the frustrations and triumphs of the writing life, but Castro skips over this premise to get to the heart of what most authors fear the most:  harsh receptions by critics.

Following the footsteps of a recent arrival in an alien society’s literary academic program, “Among the Tchi” presents writers with an entire society of dour critics, who live for eviscerating writing that is not up to their standards. But, being alien, their standards are impossible for a human to meet. So what is a human writer to do, faced with a year of unanswerable criticism? The answer is, in most cases, simply shut down, and it is here that Castro’s setup falters.

The power of harsh criticism comes from the author relating to the critic, and feeling some measure of agreement with him. At some level the unkind words speak to the author’s fears, and this is effective because the criticism is plausible. It sounds like something the author may have privately thought to himself. The Tchi, however, have a literary standard that is so outlandish that the idea of their criticism crushing academia-grade egos is pretty far-fetched. We may not know how aliens might behave, but we understand how humans act, and the passive surrender of the writers in this story doesn’t ring true. The Tchi viewpoint is just too remote to pierce the heart.

The story is difficult to comment on or review, ironically, because the very theme involves critics who are incapable of understanding where the writer is coming from. Though unintentional, this creating of a protected zone immune to literary criticism is near genius, placing those who review in an uncomfortable position. It is this real-world reversal that is so sublimely clever, since every reader must weight the value of a story, judging it by their own criteria. And how can readers help but go along, if only to distance themselves from the overbearing Tchi?

Next we have “Quickfeathers,” the story of colonists on an earthlike world, struggling to set up a life for humans. The story opens with the discovery of an ancient tomb, with the written record of a heroic figure of a vanished bird-like race. The translation of the cave’s written record parallels the evolving human situation, the years of struggle for the colonists marching in lockstep with the frantic tale of a decisive few days for the bird-hero, Wander.

Many elements of this story are immediately striking, foremost being the clear, lucid voice of Alexis Glynn Latner’s narrator. Latner’s writing is captivating, allowing her to switch between two completely different storylines repeatedly, never letting one languish or become less interesting than the other. One hazard of this format is the internal groan readers can develop when a favored storyline is replaced by the other, but the struggles of the colonists run such a gamut that there’s always something interesting being related, and the mythic quality of Wander’s quest to find a new home for his people is sprinkled with tantalizing glimpses of possible extraterrestrial activity that not only tie the story right back into the human saga, but also hold out the potential for a much longer literary work.

Latner successfully relates fascinating details that the narrator, like the rest of the humans, is just too busy to properly investigate, and this allows for the hope that she’ll come back to this universe in other stories. But if not, “Quickfeathers” stands easily on its own, its hopeful message and insightful prose making it a story that lingers in the mind. The means by which the human colonists learn to reach common ground, both with each other in their personal and professional lives, and with the spirit of the vanished native races of their new homeworld, is refreshingly candid. This is a glimpse of one of those worlds that makes you thankful you saw it, however briefly.

Rendezvous at Angel Thirty” takes the idea of interactive simulations to a whole new level, with enticingly believable and refreshingly new technology. The protagonist’s drive to re-create a World War Two air battle in which an ancestral airman’s flight vanishes in action holds just enough technical detail to make the fidelity of the simulation eerie and the carnage it depicts uncomfortably graphic. The idea of how close to real a simulation can come before it crosses an important line underlies many of the small details, and thrusts home the continual point that if the recreated flight squadron is edging toward the state of fully realized human minds, then so too are the Luftwaffe pilots they fight. The project's slide from uncomfortably accurate to wrenchingly real continues in a smooth arc, navigating historical detail, technical fact, and clever artifice without so much as a bump.

So smooth is Tom Ligon’s handling of these details that when the final moments of the simulation approach, the reader is carried along the agonizing mental route the protagonist travels, making the end of the story a poignant rephrasing of the ancient question:  what happens to characters when the story ends? Not what happens next, but what it means to be entirely undone, along with the fictional universe you inhabited? That the simulated pilots notice the occasional infidelities of their own simulation is a great touch, and makes stark the choice between dissolving them back into the ether from which they came, or allowing them to exist a couple of minutes more, and risk them seeing past the edges of the simulation’s capabilities as they approach their own airfield. Would their simulated confusion or terror be real and is it more merciful to shut down their existence and spare them? This is a fantastic piece of fiction, well-grounded and visionary, doing the genre of science fiction proud.

As interesting a premise, though ultimately less satisfying, is “The Sleeping Beauties” by Robert R. Chase. The main characters are the hyper-sleeping couple Peter and Angelina. While her story of a burgeoning Earthbound musical career and his scientific expedition to Saturn would seem to offer an opportunity for contrasts and comparison, the two never really intersect, thematically, and the storyline lacks the human warmth needed to empathize with their self-imposed loneliness.

The two storylines work well enough on their own, and the author lends each side of the story a certain verisimilitude by the wealth of specific detail he invests, whether studying the material of Saturn’s rings or discussing a future gig with fellow musicians. And yet the travails of the two lovers feels shallow, somehow, since they aren’t really apart for even the rather paltry five years the Saturn mission is to take, since they both skip huge swaths of time by technologically-extended sleep. Somehow, the central literary device of hibernation lessens the impact of their entangled interaction, more so since the interval in question is so very survivable even without it. Perhaps if they were sleeping through five hundred years, watching their known world change around them, we would feel they had made sacrifices. And having given up nothing to keep their relationship intact, their reunion is anticlimactic.

The opposite is true with Shane Tourtellotte’s “A Measure of Devotion,” in which the extent of the main character’s sacrifices are only revealed at the very end. Harris Kensil is a character whose limp, submissive nature makes the reader’s skin crawl, and, not having the opportunity to reach into the page and deliver a good shake, one potential reaction is to retreat, thinking that perhaps Tourtellotte has poured it on a bit too thick, and that the character is overdrawn.

But the skill with which Tourtellotte writes is too much in evidence. Kensil isn’t a flaccid bag of anxieties just to fill the page, and this overriding character trait isn’t because Tourtellotte is a one-note writer. The other characters are just as teeth-grindingly frustrated as the reader is, and expressive over a range of very well delivered emotional territory. In the end, when the source of Kensil’s inner weakness is revealed, it leaves the reader to feel like something of a bully, so deep does the sacrifice of the character run. Bravery has allowed many people to give up their lives, but few could risk the loss Kensil has sustained, and the results are all too evident when the story is reconsidered with all the facts. A very powerful story, delivered with the flourish of a cracking whip:  a slow build ending with a decisive, painful snap.

A Story, With Beans” is Steven Gould’s exceptionally interesting tale by firelight. Quickly it’s obvious that this needs to be read carefully, and the subtly odd tone of the opening sentences are no fluke:   this story takes place in our world, but radically transformed. “Bugs,” creatures not directly seen in the story, and never described, have altered every aspect of human culture through one singular trait:  a ravenous and violent hunger for metal. Whether they consume it, or collect it, or what, isn’t discussed, as the characters all know such details. And yet, something akin to modern culture survives, and students venture into the new wilderness of tribal human cultures, each radically different as our own society crumbles, and disparate groups secede from the greater mass of mankind.

It is here that Gould’s tale-within-a-tale delivers. A casually related story about an ill-omened couple, and the social chasm they attempt to bridge, highlights the many ways in which humans separate themselves from each other, even now, when the energies of many millions are spent in holding the various elements of society together. If the largest portion of mankind’s energies were redirected toward survival and adaptation, what would happen to our social melting pot? The answer is sobering, and delivered with a matter-or-factness that makes it feel like fact, and not fiction at all. Considering the setting, that’s quite a feat.

Lastly comes Philip Edward Kaldon’s story, “The Brother on the Shelf.” Though interstellar wars are common in science fiction, and seeing them from a distance has been done before, not since Ender’s Game has the social impact of such an event been explored in such a unique way. The small-town feel of middle America runs through the opening of this story, making the anachronistic details all the more disquieting.

The war, at this point, is only a bit over two years old, and yet has been transformed into the faux-patriotic and consumer-based affair modern readers will find instantly recognizable. The distances and communication delays involved, though mitigated by faster-than-light travel, still make communication with the front lines spotty, and this fact combines with the trading-card hobby pursued by the brothers in the story for a very tense effect. The trading cards feature actual military vessels with real crews, somewhere in the theater of operations. Their gold-printed rim darkens to black when the fact of the craft’s loss reaches the military establishment.

The awful potential here for learning the fate of loved ones from a bubble-gum-scented trading card is so unbelievable, it is entirely plausible. With all the emphasis on jingoism and flag-waving humans place on conflict, can we fully deny we will one day take our abstraction of warfare this far? And the strange ending--when even the fact of loss is long ago accepted—that same loss is simultaneously denied by a well-crafted simulacrum. The dual tides of loss and denial of loss make this a more interesting piece than the premise or the action would suggest, and the aplomb toward the sacrifice of even a close brother is unsettling. Kaldon has created a strange worldview here, but it is unclear if it is truly different than how we are, or just different from how we imagine ourselves to be.