Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Letter from the Emperor

Short Story by Steve Rasnic Tem

Jacob and Anders are an Imperial Recording Team, basically a combination of the Postal Service and the Census Bureau. They collect messages and data, and deliver them. They've been working together for years, all alone, traveling the fringes of a gigantic empire but not seeing anything as exciting as you might think. One day, Anders dies.

He probably killed himself, although we're never 100% sure, and it doesn't really matter. Which is the point. He was depressed, and now he is dead, and Jacob has all kinds of regrets. The freak accident or suicide question doesn't matter much. This is a strong point in the story's favor by page one.

It turns out that besides depression, Anders had also been hiding his aspirations of adventure and friendship from his crewmate. His diary is filled with fictional stories he made up about his and Jacob's fantastic adventures, and their wonderful friendship. In reality, they'd never been particularly close, just work acquaintances. It's an extremely sad, regretful story, and it takes place all around the fringes of the central plot.

With Anders dead, Jacob has to deal with their next planet, and a retiring Colonel who expects a letter from the Emperor that Jacob can't seem to find. The relations with the small outpost planet, ironically named Joy, form the meat of the story, and allow for some interesting exploration of the functioning (or lack thereof) of the empire. Not all that far from the ideas explored in Reed's The Long Retreat, and plenty of other stories I'm sure, but Tem focuses on the internal communication aspects. It makes for an interesting backdrop, but I'm glad there is more to the story. So much more.

Tem manages a huge amount of musing on loneliness, isolation, loss, replacements for things lost (better or worse, never the same), and the utility of telling yourself helpful little lies. The last page or so is absolutely great, with Jacob taking up Anders' writing both as a way of coping, and (to my reading) as an homage to the friend he never bothered to make, but regretfully realizes he should have. Especially impressive for so few words. A simple story that in some ways reminds me of Asimov, with an ocean of emotional and philosophical depth hiding beneath. The poem isn't as good as it could have been, although it reeks nicely of pulp-SF, but otherwise a near-perfect short story.

5 depressive fiction-writing mailmen out of 5.

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