Friday, November 8, 2013

Surfing the Human Wave: Brad Torgersen's Lights in the Deep

... in my opinion, life is depressing and hopeless enough, without imbibing further depression and hopelessness through story. I don't care how realistic people like to think that is. It's not what inspires me, or makes me love and cherish a book or a television show or a movie. When I am imbibing fiction, I want to be inspired. I want bold tales, told boldly. I want genuine Good People who, while not perfect, are capable of rising beyond their ordinary beginnings. To make a positive difference in their world. Even when all hope or purpose might seem lost.
Because this is what I think fiction - as originally told around the campfires, through verbal legend - ought to do, more than anything else: Illuminate the way, shine a spiritual beacon, tell us that there is a bright point in the darkness, a light to guide the way, when all other paths are cast in shadow.
Thus speaks Brad Torgersen in the end notes to his Hugo and Nebula nominated novelette Ray of Light. If we ever get around to making those Human Wave challenge coins, we need to hand one to this guy and invite him to the club.

A word to the wise: This triple-crown nominee (i.e., Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell) is probably my favorite newish science fiction writer. He seems to have a particular fondness for the post-apocalyptic scenario -- but while he accurately depicts the despair such circumstances inspire by definition, he also pulls out the hope. Earth and the solar system's outlying colonies are destroyed by war -- but some decades hence, a survivor finds humanity's remnant in the Kuiper Belt, and the fight to reclaim our heritage begins. A mysterious alien power snuffs out the sun and forces Earth's (greatly reduced) population to live on volcanic vents in the deep ocean -- but a teenager who's never seen the surface refuses to accept man's seemingly grim fate.

(That last sentence basically describes the plot of Ray of Light -- and honestly? I'm still upset that it didn't win the Hugo for best novelette in 2012.)

All but one of the stories included in Lights in the Deep are (very good to freakin' outstanding) stories I've read before in other venues (either in Analog or in e-book form), but this anthology is more than worth the selling price because it also includes commentary of the sort quoted above -- not to mention a series of charming love letters to the wonderful science fiction authors who've inspired Torgersen's work (a list that includes the inimitable Larry Niven, Mike Resnick, and Allan Cole).   

(Note: Torgersen says that when he met Niven for the first time, he went into FULL! FANBOY! mode. That alone should convince you to check out Torgersen's work.)

When Torgersen discusses the rise of fantasy and the eclipse of science fiction, his comments, I feel, are especially cogent. In the fantasy market, Torgersen observes, people are still writing high-stakes adventure; in fantasy, authors are still tapping into our primeval need to be a part of that great struggle between Good versus Evil. I would add, too, that fantasy is more willing to embrace the human impulse to seek out the divine. The current science fiction market on the other hand? Well, take, for example, a certain Hugo-award winning novella that traces the development of glorified Tamagotchis. The author clearly knows the industry he portrays -- but it is, in my opinion, a bloodless story with generic, featureless human protagonists. True: science fiction has always had a tendency to get lost in its own high-concept belly-button -- but at least back in the day, the high concepts were genuinely inspiring. Colonies on the moons of Jupiter! (Or our own moon -- huzzah to the Raging Loonies!)  Artificial worlds of unknown provenance! (I'm looking at you, Ringworld.) First contact with strange alien civilizations! Ask around and I'm sure you'll find thousands of astronomers and rocket scientists who chose their professions because they were motivated by Heinlein, Niven and the rest. Are the aforementioned glorified Tamagotchis likely to serve the same purpose? Personally, I doubt it -- and that's the problem. Today's science fiction authors aren't thinking big -- Torgersen being an exception that proves the rule.

Speaking of which, let's get back to the fiction. As I noted above, Torgersen's stories are fundamentally optimistic even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. In the case of The Chaplain's Assistant and The Chaplain's Legacy, they also tackle religion and spirituality in a manner that is fair and sensitive -- a feature I appreciate as a practicing Catholic Christian (and one that is pretty damned unusual in a field that is, for the most part, practically atheistic). And overall, Torgersen expertly evokes what drew many of us to science fiction in the first place: that sense of wonder and possibility. If you are still longing for man to take to the stars -- if your first response upon hearing that a private company is planning a colony on Mars was to ask "Where do I sign up?" -- the stories in this compilation are almost certainly right up your ally.

Final Verdict: STRONGLY Recommended.      

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