As detailed last week, the first pair of stories in Rough Edges Press featured unapologetically pro-American science-fiction. The unexpected pro-American subtext provided a breath of fresh air to anyone suffocating under the weight of the current trend of nihilistic and globalist claptrap infesting the genre. Unfortunately, the next pair of stories in the collection failed to continue the trend.
The third story in the collection, Martin L. Shoemaker’s A Hamal in Hollywood, breaks the trend by presenting the story of a heavy-set Armenian woman thrust into the middle of an interstellar diplomatic incident. Granted, she has lived in the USA for nineteen years, but two decades of exposure to American culture has left very little impression on her. Throughout the story, her frame of reference, her motivation, and her every reaction stems not from a uniquely American pioneering spirit, but from the generational scars that linger in the wake of the early twentieth century Armenian holocaust at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
The story itself works just fine, being a curious mix of murder mystery and chase scene that resolves into a low-grade resistance movement. This tale of an angelic alien race and their goony muscle-bound allied race would fit in great between the covers of most modern genre periodicals. Shoemaker includes enough diversity in the characters to satisfy even a major network television casting director, and ties the action directly to the ante-Bellum organization of the Underground Railroad. If the intention of A Hamal in Hollywood was to provide a celebration of America as a blank slate nation that means everything to everyone, then the story succeeds – there is nothing uniquely American here save a reference to one chapter in American history that the story itself admits has numerous parallels in other cultures.
Although not a bad story, the placement of A Hamal in Hollywood provides a discordant tonal shift from American pride to American apologetics, and from protagonists who literally wear the stars and bars on their shoulders to foreign residents who lack even the rudimentary understanding of American History. Given the abrupt change in subtext, this story serves as a bit of a proud nail that one can only assume was included as filler to pad the page count.
The following story in Rocket’s Red Glare also provides a distinct let-down for those expecting a tale of rugged American pride. Scavengers on a bombed-out planet serve as the cast for Performance Bonus, By Nathan E. Meyer. The trappings of this story are fantastic, thanks to Meyer’s skill at presenting a harsh and desolate world, instilling the claustrophobic fear of tight places filled with threatening flesh-eaters, and pulse-pounding action. Unfortunately, his characterizations are too weak to support the mood and tone of the story.
Meyer’s stumbles right out of the gate with this odd pronouncement by the scavenger team leader:
“All right people,” Fallows said into the commlink, “I got a deadbeat husband and an open investigation for tax evasion waiting for this paycheck back home.”
Wait. Why would Fallows need to send money to a deadbeat husband? Deadbeats owe YOU, not the other way around? And husbands aren’t deadbeats – it’s Dads who are deadbeats. This is a dangerous mistake for an author to make so early in a story. It pulls the reader out of a natural flow, and causes them to think hard about what they’ve just been told. It’s a red flag for the reader to slow down and pay much closer attention to things than they might otherwise. They’ll start to pick up on things that you might not have intended. For example, the main character’s name is Kali. Fans of Indiana Jones will recognize that as the name of an Indian death cult’s goddess, which might mean something. As it happens, it does not – it’s just a name meant to sound foreign, female, and intimidating. Since the reader is looking for connections that aren’t there, the name becomes a giant and frustrating red herring. As another example, one of the characters in this story shares a unique surname with the generational heroes of the earlier story, Torgersen’s Manfiest Destiny. Woah – is that the same Tolliver family? How else is this story connected to that? As it happens, it is not. It’s a fine, straight ahead action piece, but these early hiccups serve as a head-fake that can leave the reader playing catch-up, which robs the early portions of Performance Bonus of much of the sense of freewheeling fun that it might otherwise have.
Although not particularly bad, these two stories within Rocket’s Red Glare are a bit of a disappointment after the magnificent opening two stories. The overall pro-American sentiments established early on in the collection are absent here. To be fair, at no point does the editor claim this to be a collection of pro-American stories. That’s an attribute that I assigned it based on the cover and early stories. As such, my own disappointment stems largely from perhaps false expectations.
That said, managing reader expectations is part of the job of an editor. While Reasoner is smart to place a Torgersen story as his lead-off batter, it does set the bar higher for the following works. As a result, this middle portion of the collection feels flat and lifeless by comparison. Not enough to change my recommendation, though. Just based on the strength of the first two stories by Torgersen and West, it’s still a collection worth reading.