Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I have been thinking about the word, “workmanlike”. Ignoring the built-in sexism, I take it to mean functional, not flashy or showy. Whatever the work, it will be highly competent and of a standard you would expect of an artisan. In theory, this ought to be complimentary, but I have the sense it is somewhat pejorative. As if you admired the craftsmanship, but thought a real artist could do better. The complexity of the meaning is all somehow wrapped up with all those “old” class prejudices. This person is in trade and therefore no more than upper working class or lower middle class. Whereas this is a professional and so may access the highest reaches of society. It’s somehow as much a judgement of the person as of the quality of the work and, in these modern times where meritocracy is supposedly the antidote to old skool snobbery, we should ignore these outdated overtones and give skill its due.
Why, you should ask, am I rambling on about “workmanlike”? The answer lies in the writing style on display in the collection Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (published by Golden Gryphon). For the most part, these stories are told in a very direct and uncluttered way. The narrative is the most important feature. There’s no need for extravagant word choices or clever metaphors. The idea is to tell the story with the least affect (in the linguistic sense of the word).
I take this to be a virtue in short stories.
The lead story is one of two delving into alternate history territory. This time, we are asked to accept that Apollo 8 missed its firing point as it came around the back of the moon and took off on a long orbit into the “unknown”. I note an editorial in Asimov’s dealing with complaints about the story (see Editorial). It responds to a complaint from a reader which includes the following, “Suddenly, I must imagine a hero from my youth in a story where his major accomplishment is his untimely death. Why use such a macabre plot device. . .” This is an interestingly literal approach to the concept of fiction. It seems authors should not reimagine historical events involving real people because this may be upsetting to readers. Obviously it’s not defamatory to fictionalise someone’s “untimely death”. But should this debate stop in legalities. This particular moon shot happened in 1968 and, for the most part, people today struggle even to remember Armstrong as the first man on the moon in Apollo 11, let alone recall the crews of the other missions. Even though it was published in a magazine known for science fiction and now republished in a book of fictional stories, should there be a health warning at the beginning of this story in case the plot hook upsets people’s cherished memories? Or should there be a historical introduction reassuring young readers that the Apollo missions had a remarkable safety record given the technology of the time? Well, I think not. Would you want a warning at the beginning of a ghost story that there are no such things as ghosts? The purpose of fiction is to entertain. Whereas I recently read another alternate history story that bored me solid, this reads like an express train. We can all carp at the coincidences which subordinate reality to the need to make the story come out right at the end. But, overall, this is a good story in the older, pulpy style of SF.
“The Taste of Miracles” is a short short with a nicely turned idea, while “The Strangeness of the Day” represents a kind of fantasy romp in which Prince Charming survives into modern day in pursuit of his Sleeping Beauty. At this length, it’s hugely silly and great fun. I understand it was rewritten into a novel which, I suspect, might have been too much of a good thing. “Substitutions” is also a short journey into fantasy land with two of Death’s minions going about their daily work over Christmas. There’s something seriously wrong with the arithmetic underlying the plot. If it was necessary to have minions inducting people from our world into the afterlife, the death rate would require a small army of overworked minions running from one building to the next without time to draw breath. Nevertheless, we’re not supposed to think about practicalities and Rusch has a pleasing horror story to tell.
“G-Men” is the second alternate history story with J. Edgar Hoover dying a little earlier than history remembers. I remember reading this in one of Gardner Dozois’ Best SF anthologies and being very annoyed. I kept waiting for it to turn into SF and it never did. Back to my earlier debate: Heinlein suggested that science fiction was a form of realistic speculation, extrapolating from the present and imagining what will be. To my mind it therefore stretches the definition to have no sfnal elements at all in a story supposed one of the best SF of the year. It actually reads well as a mystery story and I have no problem with its inclusion in this collection. I still think Dozois should have had a warning notice before the story in his anthology.
“The End of the World” has us in the land well-mined by Zenna Henderson in The People stories and mirrored in the genetic manipulation/super race books where unaltered humans’ prejudice leads to unfortunate confrontation. This version of the old idea is as good as it gets, leaving an interesting plot point hanging which might justify expanding it into a novel. “June Sixteenth at Anna’s” is a sensitive story about loss and whether being able to peer back into the past actually helps deal with the present. “Craters” sits nicely on the border between SF and horror with terrorists able to convert children into bombs. The way the story is told gives us the chance to understand how we deal with the more unpleasant aspects of life around us. In a way, we have to ignore the worst of it to avoid becoming overly depressed — we have to care less. “Diving Into the Wreck” is the original basis of the novel of the same name (see a review here).
Overall, this is one of the better collections of the year so far. There’s a good variety of material and all are highly readable. Definitely worth picking up if you like efficient short story telling.