Clarkesworld #77, February 2013
Reviewed by Daniel Woods.
“Gravity” by Erzebet Yellowboy
“At the Academy I learned about how we sent men to the moon. […] Shortly afterwards, the snow began to fall. It didn’t stop for a hundred years.”
Earth is caught in the grip of an ice age, and the landscape of the world is unrecognisable. Humanity endures, but at a fraction of its previous total population, and with almost all life frozen and extinguished on the planet's surface, there will soon be nothing left to sustain the few that remain. In a final desperate attempt to survive, Field Captain Mair and the crew of The Last Hope will fly to the sun, and try to increase its heat output.
Erzebet Yellowboy's piece is about privation – the effects of extreme, prolonged loneliness. Over the course of their year-long voyage, the crew's condition deteriorates, from despair to madness to suicide, and this is arguably the story's main pitfall. There were times when I felt cynically immune to it all, in a “suicide, how sad” kind of way. In others, I felt dragged down by the pathos, and neither is a feeling I'd recommend. Still, most of the characters have a decent story to tell. Mair's loneliness is examined in most detail, and her separation from her dying mother becomes genuinely saddening. The mother is convinced that her daughter will save us all, and “plant flowers on [her] grave” once again (a particular challenge in a world devoid of flora), but this does not spare Mair from the guilt of leaving her on Earth to die alone, nor the feeling of isolation once she is gone.
Indeed, the feeling of loneliness is pleasingly pervasive. Description-wise, Yellowboy's spaceship can seem neglected, her characters rather featureless, yet this appears to be deliberate. The lack of physical detail also heightens the emptiness we feel: all that exists are the voices, the planets and the stars. Bleak, but effective.
“Gravity” is a story about decaying human connections, and the loneliness of the void. The piece functions on simple poignancies: little things, like a desire to see flowers grow again, a futile struggle against despair, the realisation of never coming home. Yellowboy here aims for a kind of delicate beauty, and to some extent she is successful. But hers is not a piece that will sweep you away on the tide of its emotions. “Gravity” is a quiet, sad tale, and it strides a very fine line between something that is poignant, that tugs on the heartstrings, and something that is just plain depressing.
“Gravity” was also chosen for this issue's podcast, and Kate Baker's narration definitely improves the experience. Her reading is perhaps a bit breathy for some, and either deliberately “computerised” or just recorded on a cheap microphone, but her performance complements the piece well, and I enjoyed listening to it.
“The Wanderers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Ever since the first television signals were transmitted, and the “entertainments” broadcast into space, humanity has been observed by the Wanderers. But these four creatures grow weary of their own world, and the screams of the people they subjugate. Their curiosity has finally overcome them. The Wanderers know that we, the peoples of Kill Bill and Saw and Vietnam and Columbine Massacre, will surely understand them, and will not deplore their violent natures like other races do. They wish to meet us, and now, the Wanderers are coming to Earth.
Evidently, there has been some sort of apocalypse in this story – not nuclear war, but some other total annihilation, in which all living creatures have been reduced to piles of ash. It's a shame, because the piece has quite a tense opening: what will these evil aliens do? How will humanity survive? Once you realise everybody's already dead, the story rather loses its impact. Still, there's a dark humour to it, watching psychopathic aliens amble about the world, bent on domination but finding none to dominate. I almost wish they'd found somebody to torture, but alas, no such luck. Watching the aliens attempt to discern where the humans went results in some interesting dialogue, and one hilarious moment involving a shampoo advert. However, I wasn't overly sold on the Wanderers as “fog creatures” – reads too much like “nebulous alien things that I didn't take the time to (literally) flesh out.”
The Wanderers were delighted by the dark side of human imagination, and presumed it to be our primary nature. If you factor in our implied self-destruction, and note the emphasis Stufflebeam places on “too much [resources] spent on production of entertainments,” it isn't hard to guess at her argument: evil begets evil, so indulging in our darker, more twisted tastes will ultimately bring about our doom. Or something. Admittedly, it could also be that she simply dislikes gory films. Whatever the thoughts behind this piece, Stufflebeam does bring up one interesting point. The Wanders come to Earth because, “[we knew] you would open your mouths in complaint and tell us you would destroy us but that it would delight you to be forced to try.” It would delight us to be forced to try to destroy... It's an intriguing idea.
“Vacant Spaces” by Greg Kurzawa
In Greg Kurzawa's latest piece, humanity has finally gouged out its own foothold in the stars. Well, almost. Using scavenged alien technology (hey, see any derelict FTL drives floating around nearby?), humans are piecing together their own interstellar existence, and the salvage trade is booming. Shepard and his pilot Caine are on a routine operation. But when their tug reaches its far-flung destination, the old alien wreck may not be as simple to collect as they'd thought. For one thing, when one's body and mind become separated, it gets a little more difficult to function.
“Vacant Spaces” is an inoffensive little tale about a space adventure gone pear-shaped. There is little here to criticise, but that is largely because there is little here, period. The piece is near plotless, and revolves around the fact that outside our solar system, Shepard and Caine's minds become disconnected from their bodies. Kurzawa likens the effect to that of a deep-sea creature dying if it is brought to the surface, due to a lack of (water) pressure. It's a cool idea, and given his background in theology, I can see where it comes from; I get the feeling he places a lot of faith in the “what do I do if my body dies while my mind is elsewhere?” conundrum. And I daresay that many a fulfilling debate can be had about it. But rather than write a story using his “pressure” concept, Kurzawa appears to have simply constructed a world in which to house it, then bolted on some aliens at the end to shake things up a bit.
As such, I'm neither for, nor against this piece. If I have one concrete criticism, it's that the ending is far too abrupt. They say you should always leave 'em wanting more, but this one feels like it's still missing a few pages – it's annoying, not tantalising. I'm not entirely sure what the vacant spaces are either, but it's a toss-up between “our bodies” and “the alien junk that humans are scavenging.” I'm leaning towards the former. Read it for the sake of reading the final piece of the issue, but expect your interest to be piqued right at the end, and then firmly denied.
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