Monday, April 13, 2015

Lights in the Deep, by Brad Torgersen

I first read “Lights In The Deep” when it appeared in Baen's catalog in July of 2014. I had heard rumors of “The Chaplain's War” as something that was very different, and it was. After reading it, I HAD to read everything else I could find by Brad Torgersen, and that led me to this marvelous collection of short stories and essays.

I believe that “Lights In The Dark” is the perfect review for this time of spasm we are seeing following the Hugo nominations. There is an optimism in these works, and a collegiality expressed in the contributed essays, and together those two themes pretty much define the dream that Brad was working for in his advocacy of the works on the Sad Puppy 3 list.

I suppose we are doomed to have every SF work that speaks of the military in a positive light produce comparisons to Heinlein. There are much worse fates. However, I never caught the first sniff of Heinlein-imitation in Brad's work; they just share some of the same subject matter. Having said that, though, I confess that I keep Brad's books on the top shelf of my library, which is otherwise reserved for works by Heinlein, Niven, and Pournelle. His stories are just that good.

I've called these 'contributed essays' a couple of times, but the book calls them Introductions. You may call them whatever you like, but do not make the mistake of skipping over them to get to the good stuff, the stories. The Introductions ARE some of the best of the good stuff. They are written by : Stanley Schmidt, picked certainly because he was the editor at Analog who bought 'Outbound', Brad's first story to make the big leagues ; Mike Resnick, that gifted gentleman who handed Brad his first major award, picked certainly because he has served as a mentor (Brad calls him 'my writer dad'); and Allen Cole, one of the writers who influenced Brad, picked certainly because Brad is an extraordinarily generous human being, who simply wanted to share some space in his book because he was grateful. Allen, by the way, had a truly horrible time medically in the past year or so, and recently finished chemo. We all hope his recovery continues.
Each of these Introductions do more than simply recognize Brad's talents; they reflect a kindness and willingness to share that is the opposite of cut-throat politics and headline grabbing attacks. Late last week, Brad came under a particularly mean-spirited personal attack from an individual with no sense of propriety or integrity. I happened to be re-reading this section of the book for review at the time, and I took the opportunity to post a little reminder on his Facebook page that he had earned the respect and affection of some of the greats in the business.

Before I briefly review these ten stories, a general comment: by my count, SEVEN of them deal with the end of the world as we know it, either at our own hands or of those of aliens. Even the three that don't posit the end of the world, do address issues of organized or random violence and destruction. You are with me on this, right? People DIE. In some of the stories, almost everybody dies. To quote William Goldman, “this is not 'Curious George Goes To The Potty.'”
And yet, every single one of these stories is a story of hope. In some cases, the promise of hope fulfilled is strictly personal. In others, the human race rises from ashes, but always, always the story is told through the story of an individual.

“Outbound” is the story of a paraplegic boy, taken into a space habitat by his parents, who are seeking the low-grav environment of deep space work so that he may grow up without the limits to mobility planetary life would impose on him. The technological breakthroughs in the story are lovely to contemplate, but they don't obscure the real story, which is about coming of age and taking responsibility, of being able to give and receive love.

“Gemini 17” takes place in an alternate reality, where the American space program continued the use of two-man (Gemini) capsules instead of the three-man Apollo configuration. Alternatives to the brute strength of the Saturn boosters produce a cascade of consequences, and who knows? Maybe it could have gone that way. But again, the technology takes a back seat to the human story, of integrity and loyalty.

“The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project” was a giggle for me for several reasons. First, of course the name. Second, the idea that They really ARE out there, and They don't like our rock & roll. But primarily, it's because (snicker snicker snarf snarf) THE ARMY WARRANT OFFICER makes not ONE but TWO gun mistakes! Neither of them have anything to do with the plot, and if you aren't a person of moderate knowledge of and interest in firearms, you won't even notice. But I did, and I twitted him (NOT Twittered, twitted, you know, poked fun at him) about it in my first communication with him (a congratulatory email). He was very good humored about it, but snicker snicker snarf snarf.

“Exiles of Eden” I found to be the darkest of the stories, YMMV. It describes a far distant future, where the few remaining humans have transferred their personalities into their spacecraft, and have each separately chosen a solitary existence, until an unimaginable discovery pulls them back together. Even this dismal (to me) story is ultimately triumphant, though, as the remaining survivors end their isolation with discovery of a new purpose.

“Footprints” is an utterly strange story. If you could cross a Hallmark movie with one of the best Twilight Zone episodes, this is what you'd get. I will not deceive you: I teared up a little bit with this. Love, trust, determination, promises kept, and the strength that a daughter draws from her father's memory: yeah, that made me sniffle. Weird story, though. Good, but weird.

“The Exchange Officers,” I believe, shows the biggest techno-geek influence, and you KNOW Brad has got to be a techno-geek. He's a hospital IT guru, after all, when he isn't Army Dude. Ummm...that's Mr. Army Dude, because he's a warrant officer. So the heroes of this story have to be warrant officers, too. I have no problem with that, and I even think the entire story concept has great merit.

“The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” are the kernels from which “The Chaplain's War” is grown. There are some minor differences, as story lines were revised and expanded in the final product, but since I just reviewed “The Chaplain's War” on this blog a couple of months back (January 27, to be exact) I'll not spend any pixels here. If you don't own a copy of “The Chaplain's War,” rectify that situation without delay.

“Exanastasis” is probably a high-tech retelling of some ancient cautionary tale. I say that because the characters have some pretty ancient-Greek-type names. I didn't think that my classical education was so lacking that I would completely miss the reference, but I have. Ancient-Greek-type clothes. Ancient-Greek-type family conspiracy with deadly ancient-Greek-type drama. And Communists, too. Evil-North Korea-type Communists.

“Ray of Light” inspired the cover art done by Bob Eggleton. Even reduced down to book-cover size, it's an impressive piece of art work, and when the original piece was displayed, Bob made a special point of giving credit to the story that inspired it. It's a good call, because the story was nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo that year. It's really a remarkable story because it takes all of the epic themes of aliens, the end, - you know, life, the universe, and everything – and channels it into a profoundly moving love story, the love of a father who wants to provide a future for his daughter, but can't make the guarantee. Yeah, this one can be a tear-producer as well. I've got a bio daughter, four step-daughters, and an adopted daughter, and I will cheerfully destroy anything and anybody that dares to harm one of them. But what can a father do, when the world is over? That's the important story; not galactic politics.

And that really sums up why this book is such an important symbol for the Sad Puppy 3 campaign. Brad set out deliberately to bring notice to writers who told a story that mattered to people, not in the sense of mattering politically. If you want something that matters politically, that's okay. It ought NOT to be the primary purpose of an award shaped like a rocket ship and named after a writer of pulps. Shape it like a dollar sign, or a begging bowl. Name it after a mass murderer or a leader of the masses. But let's let this award be about hope for a future. That's all Brad wants, and all that most of us want. If we are wrong in thinking that's what most who love science fiction want, I suppose we will tender our regrets, and depart the public eye, except to furtively search the bargain tables at used-book stores, and download the spurned works of those with a glimmer in their eyes to our Kindles and laptops.
But, by golly, we tried.

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