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

The Ladder at the Bottom of the World: A Collection of Short Stories by Terry Dartnall

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“The Ladder at the Bottom of the World”
Image“Footfall”
“Killjo”
“The Thirteenth City”
“The Santa Fe”
“Magic: A Quartet”
“I Am Dan’s Brain: Memoirs of a Much Traveled Mind”
“The Strange Case of Starbase 6”
“Thou Shalt Not Covet Your Neighbour’s Arthropod”
“Did the Earth Move for You Darling?”
“No Way to Treat a Lady”
“Egg”
“Pushing the Envelope”
“Raising Father Kilpatrick”
“Naughty Boy”
“Baa Humbug”
“Our Ship is Stranded”
“Will the Love Return and Aching Cease?”
“A Strange Case of Perfection”
“Wrong about Julia”
“Power Switch”
“The Rundle”
“Radio Ham”
“Clarissa”
“The Secret Life of Uss”
“Skeleton”
“Dreaming of Jennifer”
“The God Entering Antony”
“Heavenly Morning”
“Within a Thousand Years”
“Ones and Zeros”

Terry Dartnall’s collection, The Ladder at the Bottom of the World, offers a wide variety of stories from short, very short, humorous stories to longer philosophical tales. Dartnall’s background in philosophy can often be felt through tales often driven by an exploration of themes like consciousness, identity, and memory.  At times, philosophical issues seem to have an exaggerated predominance over other elements. However, most of the stories are well-balanced and enjoyable, relieved and enlightened by a keen sense of humor and a wise choice of style.

In “The Ladder at the Bottom of the World,” the first manned expedition to Triton finds a woman frozen on the inhospitable, below-zero moon of Neptune.  The creature is a mystery, and the only thing known is that she proves to be alive and in fact well at ease with intense cold.  Scientists are puzzled.  The military want to try to wake the creature up.  A philosopher has to convince them to wait by using metaphysics.

“The Ladder at the Bottom of the World” is a story that does not present many surprises, but gracefully dances to the expected.  The characterization is sketched but vivid, and the characters come alive quite distinctly in the dialogues.  An intriguing turn is provided by the philosophical references and perspectives, which, even though conveyed lightly and humorously, give an original edge to the story.

“Footfall” portrays the entrance of a gigantic god in a world out of proportion.  Terry Dartnall hurls his reader into the midst of events.  The story moves quickly, and only in one instance does the narrator indulge in a short moment of reflection.  Disorientation, the first effect of the story, is followed by dizziness, due to its rapidity.  The overall result is a charmingly mimetic impression.

The protagonist and hero of “Killjo” is Harrison.  Harrison is dull, very dull, as everyone says.  Then, after a life of boredom, Harrison becomes the champion of Killjo, the deadliest game in the world, in which the setting is simulated, but the wounds and deaths are real.  But will Harrison win in an interplanetary game of Killjo when planet earth is at stake?

“Killjo” is a story full of humor and twists.  Characterization is clearly not its strong point, and yet at the end the protagonist comes across as an interesting and puzzling figure.  The story is written skillfully and has some hilarious and bizarre moments.  Fans of Douglas Adams will love references to Life, the Universe and Everything and instances bordering on the absurd in Adams’s style.

In “The Thirteenth City,” strange fires burn in Brisbane.  Jack Black, Head of Particle Physics at the University of Queensland, seems to know a lot more about it than he should.  Jack needs to find his old colleagues, but when he does, strange things start to happen.

“The Thirteenth City” is a story that captures the reader at the beginning, and strengthens its hold more and more until its wonderful end.  The arcane elements of the story really stay arcane, and one doesn't even sense the intense juggling that usually characterizes stories of this sort, leaving the reader with the feeling of having just completed a tiresome jigsaw puzzle.  Here, the pieces fall into place with ease and grace.  The engaging plot, which alternates tense suspense to grim surprises, is fittingly complemented by a wonderfully dark atmosphere bordering on the apocalyptic.

“The Santa Fe” is a nostalgic story of two friends finding a locomotive.  This story is very different from other stories in the anthology; its style and intent are poetic, and the setting realistic.  The main theme seems to be the capacity of ending things, and the story is full of nostalgia, which, however, never becomes as powerful as one may wish.

“Magic: A Quartet” depicts four scenes.  In the first, a princess waits for her prince to come.  The second centers on a rather unusual portrayal of the sphinx.  The two protagonists of the third section are the mythical Thor and a child, while the fourth focuses on a married couple.

The four sections of “Magic: A Quartet” seem at first not to be related, at least with regard to plot.  However, they are tightly connected by the feelings they convey: a sense of loss and intense longing.  This melancholic nostalgia pervades the story, and leaves the reader feeling similarly.

In “I Am Dan’s Brain: Memoirs of a Much Traveled Mind,” Dan decides to leave his brain in a laboratory in order to keep it safe.  His brain is still connected to his body artificially, so Dan’s life doesn't change much until he decides to take it back.  What happens when one leaves one’s brain in a Laundromat?

This may all sound pretty absurd, but the point of the story is the exploration of identity and the placing of consciousness.  Dan’s brain has many adventures which challenge traditional conceptions of self, and the story has multiple narrators and viewpoints to enhance this effect.  While the idea may be interesting, it is slightly off-putting when plot and characterization are subservient to philosophical concepts to this extent.  The questions are all very interesting, but this piece seems more like a titillating mind game than a story. 

In “The Strange Case of Starbase 6,” a drugged Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson of the peculiar events relating to the life of William FitzGibbons.  William FitzGibbons decided to become a doctor according to his family’s tradition, even though he has a terrible fear of blood.  William’s phobia will prove to have effects that are much farther-reaching than one may possibly imagine.

“The Strange Case of Starbase 6” combines several elements.  Dartnall was evidently fascinated by the character of Sherlock Holmes and by the possibility of depicting him as a figure more unsettling than Conan Doyle’s original detective.  The visionary effect of drugs plays a central role in this story.  In style, the tale told by Holmes is a combination of mystery and science fiction.  At times, I had the impression that Dartnall was mixing too many different components; however, in its good moments the story reminded me of Poe’s eerie philosophical tales.

“Thou Shalt Not Covet Your Neighbour’s Arthropod” is set in a courtroom.  The defendant is an arthropod, accused of having clandestinely published and distributed pieces of human writing in the universe for entertainment.  This story is short and light, but enjoyable all the same.  It is quick, fun, and has a surprising turn at the end.

In “Did the Earth Move for You Darling?”, Witherspoon and his two friends, Vleeschauwer and Tomlinson, are heading towards planet Earth after a permanence in Andromeda.  They’re in for a surprise when they discover that the people on Earth have taken a vacation, together with the planet, in an unspecified spot of the universe.

Clearly, what dominated this story is the sense of the absurd.  The style is playful and the tone light.  Maybe even too light: this story elicited little more than an amused sneer at its characters.

“No Way to Treat a Lady” is the story of a spaceship moving through the universe and through time.  This gentle(manly), one-page piece succeeds in effectively sketching the complex and utterly human relationship people have with objects, and it even succeeds in not taking itself too seriously.

In “Egg,” Jerry Matheson and his crew find, between galaxies, an impenetrable egg that does not react to any test.  Brought back to planet Earth, the egg stays inert, but not for long.

“Egg” takes its departure from an event common in science fiction: the finding of a mysterious object that challenges human knowledge.  References to myths enrich the story interestingly, but I felt it could have been improved by deepening and expanding upon its fascinating allusion.

In “Pushing the Envelope,” Jake and the narrator carry a mysterious envelope to a likewise mysterious place.  The story creates an interesting atmosphere at its onset, and accelerates rapidly towards an eerie feeling at the end.

In “Raising Father Kilpatrick,” Jack and Uncle Lupus are creatures living between our world and another one behind it.  Uncle Lupus, hardly visible even for his nephew, has received the order to disinter Father Kilpatrick.  Despite his nephew’s initial opposition, the two head for the cemetery.

“Raising Father Kilpatrick” is an interesting but vague story.  Its most creative element is the contraposition of the humane characterization to the gothic atmosphere.  The story features references to little known Persian myths and Norse mythological figures.  Knowledge of these is critical to the understanding of this piece, but the story remains elusive to the end.

In “Naughty Boy,” a very mischievous and powerful teenager has tampered with the order of the universe.  The story rehearses a dialogue between the Counselor, father of the boy, and the Chancellor.  The science fiction setting is really a backdrop; the strength of this tale is the characterization of its two protagonists and our recognition of a familiar situation.

“Baa Humbug” is a mimetic piece of writing in which unspecified creatures are starting to kill human beings.  An interesting story, it succeeds in effectively depicting the narrator and his surroundings through style, while still maintaining interest in the plot.  And all in less than one page.

“Our Ship is Stranded” is told completely through a dialogue between someone looking for gasoline for his ship and a merchant.  The merchant may not have gasoline, but he offers many other things.  The fascination in this story rests on philosophical innuendo and the figure of a mysterious and wise merchant.

In “Will the Love Return and Aching Cease?”, Jack is wandering in the woods when he meets three old men who are looking for someone and are clearly familiar with the environment.  Jack is fascinated by the three, but he has to find shelter for the night, and it is already dark.  Things look different at night, and Jack doesn’t know just how different.

“Will the Love Return and Aching Cease?” belongs in that grey area between fantasy and science fiction.  This story also features some poetry which suits the dreamy atmosphere of the woods at night, the echoes of ancient myths, and the poetic turn at the end.

In “A Strange Case of Perfection,” the crew of the Emperor is in the Magellan when it encounters an entity that can create stars, Alpha.  Surprisingly, Alpha responds to the attempts of the crew to contact it, and engages in an interesting conversation with Captain Ransom.

“A Strange Case of Perfection” is based on St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof of the Existence of God.  The story can be read without knowing the argument, but the main point is really the discussion of St. Anselm’s controversial line of reasoning, which Dartnall explains at the end of the story.

In “Wrong about Julia,” Jack understands he has made a mistake in leaving his girlfriend Julia and heading for Andromeda without her.  Dartnall himself explains that space travel is in this case a metaphor for the immense distance dividing the two.  Regretfully, the story stops at sketching the situation and fails in fulfilling its purpose in conveying this distance.

In “Power Switch,” a human and a dragon are playing a game.  This story examines the reaction of these two different species to different situations and on how this reflects on their nature.  The story is too short to really expand on the subject, but its beginning creates a nice sense of confusion, and the story remains pleasant and light.

“The Rundle” is made up of dialogue between the Rundle and the Schemer regarding their powers.  It is a philosophical tale without a clear resolution, which remains fascinatingly obscure, leaving the reader with a delightful sense of wonder.

In “Radio Ham,” detective Bog Gooball receives an emergency call from planet Horsehead.  Dan explains that all the bodies on Horsehead have disappeared.  After much grumbling, Bog agrees to try to solve the mystery.  The hazy plot of this story is explained only at the end, and the most alluring aspect is the characterization of its narrator and protagonist, a fascinating dark, rough, and trashy detective with a telling name.

In “Clarissa,” Clarissa is pregnant, and the father is the number one enemy of human beings.  A fun one-page story which doesn’t take itself too seriously and does the job. 

In “The Secret Life of Uss,” Ugg is the ugliest of monsters, and Uss loves her, but Ugg keeps disappearing. This story examines intimate relationships and the private lives of the two parts of a couple.  The monsters and their world are a nice counterpoint to the predicament of the story, the main theme of which is acceptance of oneself and others.

“Skeleton” centers on an unresolved discussion about birth, memory, identity, and mortality.  This is a dense story that doesn’t pretend to solve any of these issues, but presents them powerfully.

In “Dreaming of Jennifer,” Professor Stromberg wants to relive his life with Jennifer before their separation, and unless the bank of experiences grants his request, he will blow up the world.  This tale about memory and identity becomes especially compelling near the end, which then cuts short a little too abruptly.

“The God Entering Antony” is a flash piece, a sketch rather than a story.  While the idea behind it is engaging, it may have benefited from some elaboration that could have done justice to the unusual and interesting plot.

In “Heavenly Morning,” Ogden and Chloris are two bored, mysterious creatures.  Chloris likes hunt humans, an inferior species which she evidently despises.  Ogden is embarrassed by Chloris’s savagery but goes along.  A strange discovery and an unexpected encounter changes their perspectives.

“Heavenly Morning” is admirably balanced; it mixes many elements successfully without overdoing it.  Its mild humor never gets out of hand, and any disorientation experienced is resolved quickly and gracefully.  The plot may not be especially novel, yet it is enriched by a mixture of suggestive references which create a sort of subplot connecting different legends and literary traditions.

In “Within a Thousand Years,” Christy and Harry are driving from London to Berlin and decide to give a lift to a hitchhiker.  The hitchhiker proves to be anything but ordinary.

“Within a Thousand Years” is told in fragments through multiple perspectives.  Through the first person narration of the three characters, Dartnall succeeds not only in giving different angles to the story, but also in keeping the suspense alive.  Another effect of Dartnell’s skilful  technique is the sharp characterization that makes this so vivid.

In “Ones and Zeros,” Joshua was banished and sent to another planet because he is a dualist; he believes that humans and machines have different natures and consciousnesses.  Catered to and supervised by the Machine, he lives with Boris and Jeanine, two intelligent and sensitive machines. While Joshua appreciates them, he also feels divorced from them.  Joshua has contacted Monica, a woman far way in space, who he duplicates with the Machine.

The most remarkable achievement of “Ones and Zeros” is the harmony between the philosophical issues at the center of the story and the development of the plot.  The story is well written, and the elegant, convoluted style contributes to the apocalyptic atmosphere.

Publisher: Trantor Publications
Price: $6.99
Adobe eBook: 127 pages