In a strong issue, the protagonists of these three stories find a reality that doesn’t match their expectations or hopes. Jeremy R. Butler tells of a worker in the asteroid belt who dreamed of adventure in space, but instead finds he has to cope with boredom. The boyfriend of the narrator in Annalee Newitz’s story disappears, quite literally; getting him back is not everything the protagonist imagines. Will Ludwigsen depicts a cop getting all his questions answered, even the ones he perhaps wished were left open.
“Recipe Collecting in the Asteroid Belt,” by Jeremy R. Butler, is a portrait of boredom and frustration which is neither boring nor frustrating to read. Our narrator always wanted to be an asteroid Wrangler, grew up with his head full of romantic images born of watching old movies or press conferences with veteran Wranglers like Smilin’ Joe Ferese. He trained fastidiously and made it to the asteroid belt—only to find that all the adventure and danger had been removed from the Wrangling trade, and his job was essentially to oversee an automated process (“It took four months to accept that I did more to load a dishwasher than to mine my asteroid”). All he could find to relieve the tedium was to experiment with the different types of algae he harvested for food, in the hope of finding something that produced a sensation. . .anything.
Butler’s prose works in two main ways to evoke his protagonist’s situation. The first is using movies as a constant frame of reference: at first, the narrator’s memories of watching old films featuring Wranglers are strongly tied to his excitement at the prospect of becoming a Wrangler himself. So, when he starts referring to movies in the context of his current boredom (“You know the part in the movie when the rogue cop does his taxes? Or the scene when he throws out his back and needs to stay in bed for a week?”), we see how close to his heart the disappointment has reached. Butler’s second key technique is to use the language of the algae recipes (“Chicago involves a 1% decompression to feel the wind”) in a different context towards the end (“Panic, followed. Then Challenge”), to show in a chillingly understated way how desperate the protagonist has become. It rounds off a story which is deceptively straightforward in its use of language.
“Twilight of the Eco-Terrorist,” by Annalee Newitz, begins with an arresting and powerfully described image: the moment at which Long (whose gender is not given) discovers the ability to separate materials into their constituent atoms—the moment when Long’s boyfriend Lawrence’s car disintegrates, and Lawrence along with it. Long becomes a student of materials science, and of course can accomplish far more than the other students; Long also falls in with an environmental protest group, and that disintegration ability proves useful there as a means of getting rid of polluting cars. But the real object of Long’s researches is to find out how to reconstitute materials, which might then allow Long to bring Lawrence back—and, when the opportunity to do so does arise, the consequences are shocking.
Newitz skilfully documents the single-mindedness of her protagonist: the extraordinary lengths to which Long is prepared to go to retrieve Lawrence; the issues that the character was not prepared to deal with in doing so; and the doubts the Long still feels afterwards. On top of this, there’s an elegance in the story’s construction: Long’s self-obsession in pursuing an objective ostensibly for the benefit of someone else (it seems that bringing back Lawrence is more for Long’s benefit than Lawrence’s), finds a mirror in the protest group, who are more concerned with making cool videos of disappearing cars than they are with the state of the planet, and they’ll happily drop that ‘interest’ if it becomes dull. And the whole concept of disintegrating and regenerating Lawrence works with a metaphorical interpretation as well as a literal one—see it, perhaps, as representing the overwhelming desire to hold on to an ex-lover; it’s the ramifications of that kind of desire that Newitz’s story explores so very well.
Will Ludwigsen’s “In Search Of” (first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2008) is a short piece that takes the form of a second-person address to a homicide detective—it’s the answers to all the burning questions he ever had. The tale begins with the big cosmic questions, moves through various conspiracy theories and historical mysteries, before finally focusing on the man’s life. Ludwigsen’s control of his material is very good here: at first, the structure feels fun but rather inconsequential ; but, as the issues get more personal and poignant, we feel their import, and come to see how the protagonist has tried to hide away from the questions closest to his heart. As the narrator puts it: “Your greatest strength is your desire to ask all the big questions. Your greatest weakness is your fear of asking the little ones.” Ludwigsen’s piece is a fine ending to a great set of stories.