Other Ways: Three Tales from the Secant by Mark W. Tiedemann

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“Dividing Lines, Natural Limits” (Foreword)
“Broca’s Ghost”
“Texture of Other Ways”
“With Arms to Hold the Wind”

Mark W. Tiedemann
’s Secantis Sequence began in 2001 with the novel Compass Reach, a story set in a future where humanity has expanded to form an interstellar empire, the Pan Humana, and its rival fringe, the Commonwealth Republic. He followed Compass Reach with Metal of Night (2002) and Peace and Memory (2003), stand-alone stories set in the same universe. Other Ways: Three Tales from the Secant is a collection of three short stories (previously published in Science Fiction Age and Asimov’s), all part of the Secantis saga, but otherwise unrelated.

Tiedemann begins with a foreword, “Dividing Lines, Natural Limits,” in which he reflects on the origins of the Secantis Sequence and on the nature and limitations of empire. Fans of Tiedemann’s Secantis novels will probably be interested in this discussion, but I found it pedantic and off-putting. Honestly, if I hadn’t been assigned this collection for review, the foreword would have made me put it down.

I’m happy to say that if I’d done that, I’d have missed three fine tales. Tiedemann’s stories are powerful dramas, thanks to the way he brings his human protagonists into such sharp focus.

“Broca’s Ghost,” the weakest of the three, is nevertheless a thought-provoking and moving tale of prisons both concrete and metaphorical. Evan Borik’s prison is as big as a planet—the desolate desert planet Petersgate:

He never wanted to come back, his whole life has been spent leaving Petersgate, but here he is, brought back to answer questions to which he himself does not want to know the answers.

Petersgate has recently played host to a rebellion, brutally quashed by the Armada. During the rebellion, Petersgate’s one prison—the grimly nicknamed Terminal City—automatically sealed itself off from the world in a permanent and deadly lock-down. To reopen the facility, the Armada brings in the Corovais family, who built it. They also bring Evan Borik back home.

Borik has more than a passing familiarity with the prison. Not long ago, he supervised the transport of prisoners to Terminal City. This was no ordinary prison; no one was ever released, and no one ever escaped. The Corovais are displeased, since the Petersgaters have modified the prison, turning it into a concentration camp, a point of no return.

Borik is an Eichmann-like character, a fellow closely aligned with evil who wants only to see himself as squeaky clean. Though a minor warden, he “did not approve of this place,” and in his discussions with the Corovais and the Armada officers, he tries his best to disassociate himself from the prison and its abuses. His protestations sound increasingly hollow. The gradual revelation of Borik’s complicity is one of this story’s greatest strengths.

Borik eventually must come to terms with what he and his fellow Petersgaters have done. Along the way, he’s helped by Teryl Corovais, who has ghosts of her own. While Borik’s transformation is well developed, I found Teryl’s epiphany to be somewhat less believable. Borik’s prison is real, Teryl’s less so; perhaps hers is of her own making.

I enjoyed “Broca’s Ghost,” but found it preachy at times—something less than subtle. And while Tiedemann’s prose usually whips along (that’s true of all three stories, incidentally), I stumbled occasionally on phrases like “a thin, indecisive blue sky,” and wordy sentences like,

It is difficult to explain to people how Petersgate became a burden to itself, how the urgency for perfection had transformed every action of every day into a demonstration of loyalty.

By the end, though, Tiedemann won me over, thanks to the importance of the subject matter and the message. It’s a pleasure to see someone tackling the thorny questions.

In Tiedemann’s foreword, he states “Texture of Other Ways” is about “political arrogance gone wrong.”  I think he sells the story short. True, the story jabs at military-bureaucratic foolishness, but I thought the tale had a much more human core.

The protagonist is one of thirty-three "telelogs," individuals modified at age two so that they are functionally telepathic. They’ve been created for a reason. Humanity has recently contacted the seti, aliens so different from us that all attempts at communication have failed miserably. The Pan Humana powers-that-be hope the thirty-three telelogs’ special ability will enable them to learn the seti’s language. “Texture of Other Ways” details the telelogs’ journey to meet the seti delegates, their ill-fated encounter, and the aftermath.

The undisputed stars of this story are the telelogs, easily elbowing aside Tiedemann’s imaginative aliens. The telelogs are a needy, interdependent bunch, essentially a group mind. They hate to be separated from one another, even for the short shuttle flight to their meeting place with the seti. They do indeed learn something from their contact with the seti, but the knowledge gained is paltry, and the price horrible.

"Texture of Other Ways" is nicely multilayered. It can be read as a case study in bureaucratic bullheadedness, one that explores the human (and non-human) costs of such stupidity. Tiedemann’s foreword suggests this is what he had in mind. The story also works as a science fiction, providing an interesting glimpse of a human group mind. Perhaps "Texture of Other Ways" works best as a tale about loneliness and fear.

“With Arms to Hold the Wind” is the story of teenage friends Jos Kurden and Skaner Vahi, and of the girl, Illa Preneur, who comes between them. Jos, Skaner, and their families are spiceleaf farmers on the planet Tabit. They live on a plateau laced with deep canyons, canyons that are filled with deadly jungles. Teenagers being what they are, the top sport is trestling:

. . . trestlers gathered on the bridges and jumped down into the thermals that ran through the canyons like rivers of air, riding the currents above the mass of jungle on dragon’s wings of spiceleaf.

The reigning trestling champ, Skaner’s older brother Rafir, soon will be coming home from the Front. Skaner would like to break Rafir’s record, but there’s a problem. With so many soldiers off at the Front, Tabit’s garrison can’t afford to spare the personnel to police the dangerous sport. Garrison Sergeant Angert has forbidden all trestling for the season.

Enter Illa Preneur, a newcomer from Earth. Illa may not be the cutest girl in town, but she knows how to use her sexuality like a weapon. Skaner and Jos are her prey. What does she want from them? Why does she continually goad Skaner into trestling, even though it’s against the law and potentially deadly? And what, if anything, does she feel for the boys?

Rafir’s homecoming catalyzes Skaner’s decision to go ahead with his record-breaking plans; only then do we learn what Illa wants with him. The concluding scene between Jos, Illa, and Illa’s artist mother was poignant and troubling. It reminded me of Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, in that it raised many of the same questions: what is the intrinsic value of art, and how far can you go in pursuing it?

As with the first two stories, this one may have an extraterrestrial setting, but the core drama is human. Tiedemann does a fine job showing the inner lives of Jos, Skaner, and Illa; their decisions are believable, and the conflicts between them are always compelling, never artificial.

My final assessment: Other Ways is a strong collection of sensitive, disturbing, and thought-provoking stories. I’m looking forward to reading more of Tiedemann’s fiction.

Publisher: SRM Publisher LTD 
Chapbook Price: $10.00