Here is a quick run down on the stories in this collection for the people that just want to know what it’s about:
- “Outbound” — This is the author’s first big sale to Analog. It’s about a survivor of a system-wide apocalypse trying to find the last remnants of humanity.
- “Gemini 17” — JFK was not assassinated in this alternate history setting and America’s first black astronaut is ordered to continue his journey to the moon after an fatal accident occurs.
- “The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project” — A wealthy eccentric involves a community radio station in his kooky SETI scheme. Weirdness ensues….
- “Exiles of Eden” — All that’s left of humanity is the sentient robot ships that were built during a last ditch effort to protect Earth from an alien invasion. Now these ships have discovered an inexplicable population of humans on a paradise world living at a stone age level. What now…?
- “Footprints” — Brad Togersen’s first story to get past an editor. This one got into his community college’s literary magazine where it was a nice contrast to all the moody, artistic stuff. It’s told as a set of scenes that fade into each other over the course of years.
- “The Exchange Officers” — This novelette was nominated for a Hugo. Two remote controlled robots are all that stand in the way of a Chinese attack on a US space station.
- “The Chaplain’s Assistant” — The insectoid aliens had wiped out almost all of the colony. They would have finished the job, too, but they simply could not fathom human perspectives on God and religion. This curiosity on the aliens’ part is the only thing keeping the human prisoners of war alive.
- “The Chaplain’s Legacy” — This is the novella that is nominated for a Hugo. The previous installment was nearly an Asmovian dialog. This one is a mixture of Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx, Ender’s Game, and the movie “Enemy Mine.”
- “Exanastasis” — After the apocalypse, your clone wakes up on the moon and commies are coming to nuke you. Your robotic “children” are revealed to have had ideas of their own and all of your plans are in disarray.
- “Ray of Light” — This is the big finale. An alien ship has used a cloud of mirrors to block the sun. Humanity has retreated to the hydrothermal vents at the ocean floor in an attempt to survive the resulting cataclysm.
Okay, that’s a lot of story! But there’s more here. The book as a whole is really about how a rookie science fiction author gets his start in today’s scene: who he sells to, who mentors him, what happens at workshops and conventions…. For the aspiring writer, the extra information and essays and annotations will be as much of a draw as the stories themselves.
I could pick apart some of the elements of this stuff, but the author is a likable guy. I’m rooting for him and I want to see him succeed. But I don’t understand why so many of these stories are up for awards. I’m honestly trying to wrap my head around how this collection could be as big of a deal as it is. For the readers of Analog, these must have really stood out: they voted “The Chaplain’s Assistant” as best of its category in an AnLab poll. And they’re far from the only people praising Brad Torgersen’s work. I am pretty far outside of the current science fiction scene, so to put all of this into perspective I have to think back to before I dropped out of it.
Now… I remember the last couple of stories I’d read in magazines like that. Back in the early nineties, I dipped into several of them hoping to find the next Robert A. Heinlein. One story was about a scientist running experiments on computer simulations of pigs and chickens or something. If they passed, he might get to test his drugs on a computer model of a human! (No aliens or explosions there. Heck, I can’t even remember any conflict.) In another story, a painter that specializes in portraits always ends up romancing the women he paints. He’s a real Lothario. Then he gets a gig to paint an alien on Mars or something… and his work just isn’t coming out right. Then it dawns on him that he needs to get freaky with the alien in order paint a good picture of it. Twist ending: the alien with incomprehensible anatomy turns out to be a dude!
Perhaps somebody else can confirm this for me, but maybe the magazines have continued to be as godawful as I remember. (I’m afraid to check, honestly. What if they’re worse…?) Maybe “real” science fiction with aliens and space ships and laser beams and exploding planets just isn’t done so much anymore…? Maybe the fans that are deep in the science fiction scene are actually starving for the sort of thing that I would recognize as, you know… being science fiction. Maybe the way that Brad Torgersen’s collection combines apocalyptic catastrophe with a sense of hopefulness really is having an impact.
That he does this while straining to meet editorial expectations and bending over backwards to not offend the readership’s political and religious sensibilities is perhaps the most obvious constraint holding back these stories. The chaplain’s assistant doesn’t really believe anything. It’s true, he’s not exactly an anti-hero in the tradition of, say, Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim. Nevertheless I find it disappointing that he’s more of a janitor than any sort of spiritual leader.
In the same vein, I have to wonder how well the other characters would work if their demographic categories were less of a factor in how they’re presented. Is the fact that he includes a female jewish cosmonaut, a coptic Christian, several female soldiers and military leaders, and a couple of very-obviously black characters what he had to do in order to get his stuff past the editors…? I found myself missing Asimov’s post-ethnic, post-religious future and Herbert’s bizarre cultural fusions as I read these. Of course acknowledging the extreme diversity of faiths, ethnic groups, and nationalities is often unavoidable in a near-future story. I’d just like to be more consumed with the actual characters than whatever boxes they happen to check off.
Looking over that list of stories, I have to say that “Outbound,” “Exiles of Eden,” and “The Last Chaplain” were easily worth the price of admission by themselves. Sure, the grandmasters of science fiction put together bigger ideas and better action when they were at the top of their game. And yeah, Vox Day spoiled me with The Last Witch King where he had all of these believable characters that I couldn’t help but invest in and care about; I would have liked to have seen something closer to that here. Of course some of this material is hit or miss depending on your tastes, but I can say this with a great deal of certainty: had those science fiction magazines had stories that even tried to be like this, I doubt I would ever have quit reading them.
As far as gameable content goes, if you’re looking for a way to harness the Oort cloud and the Kuiper belt in your Traveller games, then “Outbound” should give you some ideas. The trend toward remote controlled drones and space work are covered in depth in “The Exchange Officers,” and Brad Torgersen’s real life military experience helps him to nail down some of the details. Twists and implications about Car Wars style cloning are dealt with in a couple of stories. And my Gamma World setting seems decidedly un-epic without having a colony of Pure Strain Humans on the ocean floor near the hot water vents like what you see in “Ray of Light.”
Note: While I was reading this book and working on this post, the turf war in the science fiction scene has continued to develop. Brad Torgersen has announced his withdrawal from the SFWA and continues to weigh in on the controversy surrounding this year’s Hugo nominations. While this sort of thing is beyond the scope of what I normally do here, this story has snowballed to the point where it is even being covered in mainstream news sources and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.