Tuesday, April 26, 2011

All That Touches the Air

Short Story by An Owomoyela
Published Free Online, April 2011 Lightspeed

When she was a little kid, our unnamed narrator saw a crazy man condemned to death, and thrown out to the ocean outside their colony, to be covered in a mist of tiny silver parasites, who took over his body.

The mist creatures are called the Vosth, and they are the dominant species on Predonia, although they come from somewhere else, just like humans. Humanity's treaty with them is more just what they declared upon realizing we were intelligent:
"All that touches the air belongs to us. What touches the air is ours."

Because of her childhood horror, seeing a man thrown out to become alien (which all the characters refuse to acknowledge, although the author obviously intends trauma to be a factor), the narrator is a germaphobe. Not so much worried about E. coli as about any possible contamination of the base by the Vosth, she refuses to take off her environmental suit except to shower, is obsessive about sterilization, and can't eat if she hasn't walked by the airlock to make sure it's still closed.

The story is about three changes in the protagonist. First, she learns to care about politics and inter-species relations, largely because a young girl named Endria keeps pestering her about the Vosth. Second, she learns to overcome her fears of the Vosth, and learn the empathy she wishes they had. Third, she overcomes her desire to hide emotionally and refuse to interact with any of the other colonists. All this against a background story of inter-species diplomacy.

Which sounds great, and it was a very interesting story, but I also found it strangely annoying in places, strange for such an otherwise well-written story. I absolutely sympathized with the protagonist, but saw the depth of her craziness, and the scary atmosphere (pun intended) was good enough for this to almost count as horror in places. Those were my highlights, now my problems:
  • The author goes to obnoxious lengths to keep the protagonist unnnamed, to the point where it distracts from my reading of the story when all the other characters refer to her as "citizen" or "you" and seem to actively go out of their way to avoid naming her (him?). I don't need all characters to have names, but distracting from the writing to avoid a name doesn't add anything to the story, and it does hurt a bit.
  • There is no good reason I can think of for Menley to be stripped naked and given to the Vosth at the beginning. It serves the story, but not logic. If they sentence him to death, I'd think it would be easier and safer, and generally more logical for all involved to just kill him and recycle him to feed the hydroponic plants, rather than waste the resources. And it's a particularly horrific way to go. It might work as an example if he were guilty of a real crime, but as his crime was being crazy and pooping on the governor's lawn, it just establishes the government as almost cartoonishly totalitarian, abusing citizens for shits and giggles rather than to instill fear or control.
  • "an expression like he'd been eating ascorbic acid." This line is just using science words to remind us that it is THE FUTURE. I can't imagine anyone saying they ate ascorbic acid. Eat a lemon or a bad-tasting vitamin supplement.

So the writing didn't impress me overall, but parts of it were excellent. The character development was masterful, but the political and government plot were idiotic. Overall, this was a story about an obnoxiously anonymous character who grows as a person, and has some interesting events happen, and some deep thoughts. Worth reading, and better as a whole than the nits I'm picking, but not award-worthy.

3.5 alien fog zombies out of 5.

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