A review that originally appeared in Interzone #254:-
Steve Rasnic Tem
NewCon Press hb, 176pp, £18.99
Twember is the latest entry in the Imaginings series from NewCon Press, each volume of which will “feature the work of a single selected author, bringing together the very best of that author’s previously published but uncollected short fiction, as chosen by the author themselves, plus original stories”. In the case of Twember the selected author is Steve Rasnic Tem, who is primarily known for his horror and weird fiction output, but here shows what he can do when he chooses to dabble in the science fiction genre.
Opening story ‘A Letter from the Emperor’ put me in mind of the Foundation universe of Isaac Asimov, but here with the space opera elements given a very human dimension, as the sole surviving crew member of a messenger ship visits a remote outpost of a galactic empire and brings a little joy into the life of a retiring official by faking a letter of commendation from the emperor. This is a gentle story that touches on so much – the remoteness and uncertainty of our political collectives, the shifting nature of memory, the need for a human side to the most colossal of enterprises – entertaining for the way in which it plays with human foibles, and seeming to show that our basic nature, with the need for recognition, will remain the same no matter how far we spread throughout the galaxy.
Title story ‘Twember’ originally appeared in Interzone #239 and is set in a world where society has been undermined by the sudden appearance of artificial structures that move through the landscape like icebergs. They appear to be shards of frozen time or memory, and Will, the protagonist of the story, refers to them as “escarpments”, and in the way they effect the world, with past events and memories thrown up at random, I think an argument could be made for them being an externalisation of dementia – Will’s father, who suffers from dementia, is the only one who seems content and at peace in this uncertain world. Tem’s apocalyptic vision is impressively rendered on the page, but his story is focused on Will and the family unit he is trying to hold together, as they adjust their expectations to suit the altered circumstances, finding serenity and acceptance of a kind, with the feeling that while they must abandon physical things they can still cling to something that represents essentially who they are.
In ‘The Day Before the Day Before’ an operative of an agency that works to change the past in subtle ways is abandoned in a different time period after he fails in his mission, the story setting up an opposition between views of pragmatism and the universality of suffering, but focusing on the human dimension, with the man remembering his family and the things that have been lost. A former soldier who maintains a park’s artificial environment in ‘Pathetic Fallacy’ encounters a wild child who changes his ideas about how he should conduct himself, so that when she tries to leave him he calls the authorities to capture her for her own good, the story showing how brittle our values can become. The brief ‘Forward’ marks the idea that nothing really changes, only the technology with which we express ourselves.
‘Visitors’ has an elderly couple visiting their criminal son who has been imprisoned in a cryogenic facility so that he will suffer eternally, the story heartfelt and moving as it shows us the cruelty of what is being done, contrasting our attitude to animals with that to humans, and at the end concluding with the idea of the comforting lie that enables both parents and child to continue with their existence. Dead children are brought back as ‘Cubs’ and go off on a camping trip, the story exploring the idea that perhaps death should be an end, that sometimes the reality of continuing on is too horrific to contemplate, as here with a child committing a terrible act and a conspiracy of silence to cover up what has taken place. As metaphor, the story touches on the issue of letting go, of how we can sour both our own life and that of those we care for by clinging on to a past moment.
Longevity is conferred on the most valued members of society in ‘Forty-three Thousand Sunsets’, but the cost to others is severe restrictions on the right to reproduce that cause social upheaval and civil unrest. There’s a struldbrug quality to the life of city architect Brian, as he witnesses countless changes but loses his capacity to keep track of them with the onset of a form of dementia, the story both sad and chilling in its depiction of the life he clings on to, asking if it really is worth the high price.
‘Ephemera’ is the longest story in the book, and one that deftly dramatizes the conflict between progress and the need to hang on to things of value. Book dealer Ascher convincingly ridicules collector Daniel’s addiction to digital books, wanting books to be cherished as objects in themselves, but later we learn that his house has become a mausoleum of sorts, piles of books on every side, his inability to let go of things that have outlived their purpose holding Ascher back in a powerful story that presents both sides of the argument, soliciting our sympathy and compassion for the protagonists, while at the same time showing how even our own children can become strangers to us, and then ending on a note of triumph, with the objects of the past transfigured into art in the present, though it is perhaps a pyrrhic victory.
Tom wakes from a cryogenic sleep to find that aliens are ‘At Play in the Fields’, the human race having fallen from its technological peak, but his attempts to find a place in this new society flounder in a kind of existential angst, with questions that only he can answer for himself, or to which perhaps there are no answers. The story is mirrored in ‘The Long Afternoon of the Human Race’ in which the last surviving human in the flesh takes his leave of mankind’s descendants, mechanical and virtual, with the vagaries of evolution celebrated, the story offering a sense of continuity in human life and affirming the value of the fictions with which we make sense of our condition, reminiscent in some ways of Pohl’s work, as are many of these stories, and ending the collection on a positive and upbeat note, playing counterpoint to the sadness of much that preceded it.