Okay, this one has one of the best opening hooks I remember reading:
Master Sergeant Jacobs arose in his tomb, ready for duty.
Wait… a tomb, what? What the heck?! Then just before the first section break you get this exquisite knife twist:
Most likely, he, and everyone he knew, were already dead.
That is simply top notch writing there. It’s not just doing something I ever even imagined could be done with the worn out old Starship Trooper concept. It’s delivered in such a way that even people that think they have a yen for something else are absolutely going to have to keep reading.
And note that sandwiched in between those two sentences is no small amount of the sort of thing other critics have referred to as being “gizmo-obsessed prose that gives hard SF a bad name.” My tastes tend to run more toward the sort of heroic fantasy that “serious” science fiction authors set themselves up against. But even I wouldn’t characterize these passages in that way any more than I would refer to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories as being little more than “brawny thewed power-fantasies.”
No, this is an utterly fantastic concept that the author is presenting here. It puts the brain into shock and the only way it can be put at ease is if it is answered with enough plain fact and information to make this crazy premise seem real. Every one of those paragraphs containing what to my unscientific mind registers as being really convincing technobabble…? They are absolutely necessary in making this work.
The flashback that explains how all of this came to be…? Awesome. The rallying of the troops in the face of what can only be a lost cause…? Epic. The discovery of the former self’s home and the clues about what really happened to his family…? Genuinely moving. Everything leading up to this point has an almost mathematical level of cogency. But then… things just sort of peter out.
Now… I’m not saying this isn’t a good story. This is one of the best I’ve read this year. The originality and the execution are first rate. Space Slug literature just hasn’t the attention it deserves in the years since A. Merritt’s 1918 story “The People of the Pit.” But something is missing from the resolution that I think authors from a more unabashedly pulpy era would have known to address.
For one thing, there is a shift in style where events are merely narrated. We are mostly told how everything turns out rather than being allowed to experience it vicariously. The fact that the setting details and the overall strategic picture are so engrossing just don’t make up for it. The drama arc just flattens out and sort of grinds down. The protagonist resists, fights, finds a way to soldier on. But it just doesn’t feel like anything is truly at stake.
How someone could work things out in a way that is consistent with the restrictions of hard science fiction is beyond me. But a pulp author would have several options here. The cyberspace environment could have been a Wonderland, an Elfland, an Oz with an entirely different type of action, for instance. A pulp author would have found some way to introduce some sort of romantic dilemma, perhaps via some cybernetic femme fatale as was done most recently with Star Trek: First Contact. An author as skilled as C. L. Moore could even go so far as to craft a believable romance between a deceased human and a hot space slug babe that’s truly beautiful on the inside!
All of this is of course crazy talk. Times have changed. The internecine conflict between “hard” and “soft” science fiction fans really is real, and I seriously doubt anyone could write an ending along these lines that would actually satisfy this story’s intended audience. (Though if anyone could, it would be John C. Wright. And he’d dash it off in half an hour as if it were nothing. As a joke, even.)
The one missing element here that can be drawn from the pulp ethos and applied in this context would have to be this idea of moral peril that Misha Burnett has singled out. The protagonist really needs to make some kind of choice. If Stan Lee were writing this, for instance, the corpse would have to choose to sacrifice itself in order for its “real” self to go on living. Or perhaps in a twist, the corpse would have to allow its “real” family to be destroyed so that humanity might live. Whatever the decision, there ought to be a real temptation for the protagonist to take the easy way out. And it ought to otherwise look like an entirely impossible situation.
Can such a thing be done without dropping into a more fantastic mode that is at odds with the hard science fiction ethos? I think it can. Steve Rzasa managed to pull it off with his story “Turncoat.” Just because something is written as a straight ahead science fiction story doesn’t mean that the sort of eucatastrophe that Tolkien writes about in On Fairy Stories is off the table. After all, hard science fiction is still just another type of fantasy. There may be a significant number of constraints involved that prevent the vast majority of authors from even tackling it, but even so… utterly transcendent storytelling is still possible within the medium. Achieving it really is a matter of creators deciding they want to go for it.
Note: This is the second story to show up in my mailbox as a result of my backing the Lyonesse project. This is a totally worthy endeavor that’s run by awesome people and you definitely want to check it out!