Monday, January 31, 2011

Helping Them Take the Old Man Down

Novelette by William Preston

I've said before that it seems like every other Asimov's/Analog story lately is a tribute to the pulps. It frequently bugs me, but this particular tribute is a thoughtful, interesting tribute, where it doesn't matter at all if you know who it is referencing or anything about him. Either you get the reference or you don't and the difference is a small bit of "oh-I-get-your-reference" enjoyment, but trivial as compared to enjoyment of the story.

So Lanny is a college professor who used to help a pulp-style hero, now referred to as "The Old Man" in various fantastic plots. They had a whole secret organization helping to foil supervillians, back in the day. But Lanny has been retired from the business for years. After the 9/11 attack, the NSA comes to Lanny looking to hunt down The Old Man, as he vacated his offices in the World Trade Center just a month before, seeming to know about the attack, but neither attempted to foil it, nor alerted anyone.

Lots of hemming and hawing and reminiscing about past adventures, but Lanny eventually betrays his old boss/friend. I'm not sure I completely buy Lanny's betrayal. I don't really see the motive for it, especially as he is supposed to be fairly tough and adventurous, despite the rampant self-doubt. The Old Man certainly knew Lanny would be the one to betray him, and planned for that eventuality, but I saw little reason for it, or foreshadowing of it.

Anyway, Lanny betrays his friend, helps the government hunt him down and discovers that they want to use this elderly hero as a scapegoat for 9/11. It is a somewhat surprising, and definitely moving ending and the end implies that maybe Lanny will try to take up some of those duties, to the best of his ability.

A thoughtful story, not only about how the best hero is always 10 steps ahead, but about the nobility of personal sacrifice for the common good, even when no one else knows about it, or even if they think the worst of you. And that sometimes we can't see all the deaths averted because of the much more obvious immediate cost to human life.

A novelette that could only be written after too many lives have been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without the knowledge of the more long-term costs of our response to 9/11, this story wouldn't be nearly as moving or the Old Man's logic sufficiently obvious. It probably won't be so obvious 50 years from now, but in 2011 this is worth 4 fortresses of solitude out of 5.

1 comment:

William Preston said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review of my story.

Best wishes,