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There are times when reading where I come across a book that just floors me and make me rediscover a part of me that I had thought I’d lost. That revitalises and refreshes my perspective on the state of the genre and makes me fall in love with it all over again. Lights in the Deep by Brad R. Torgersen is one such book. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading this man’s writing then you really should buy this book. Brad R. Torgersen is a multiple Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Award nominee and from reading the stories contained herein you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see why. It is filled to the brim with vividly realised settings, emotionally engaging characters and insightful themes and ideas that resonate long after you have finished reading.

Things start as they mean to go on with “Outbound”. It is just breathtaking in its execution, pace, setting and characterisation. The story follows the journey and growth of a solitary child survivor pitched into the depths of space following the annihilation of human civilisation in our solar system. He is rescued from oblivion by a roving space observatory crewed by a human woman and her husband in AI form. In a bid to flee the automated defence systems that are eradicating any remaining signs of human existence, they head out into the cosmos in search of “The Outbound”.  These are humans who decided to leave the confines of known space and explore and colonise the void. As the unlikely surrogate parents and their adopted child head off on in the vague hope of finding the Outbound, you become totally engrossed in their plight. The realisation hits you early on that their plan could take decades or even centuries to achieve. Time and distance begin to mount up at an ever alarming rate. Brief moments of hope appear as they discover bread crumbs on the trail. However, as they progress further and further from the known into the unknown, the hope starts to fade as the odds start to become irrevocably stacked against them. Relationships fracture, systems fail, resources dwindle and you begin to wonder if the observatory is going to end up being the characters tomb. Suffice to say, the denouement, when it arrives, had me punching the air and grinning from ear to ear. It is just a beautiful story and you won’t be hard pressed to see why Analog readers picked it as one of their favourites.

Next up is “Gemini 17”, an alternate history take on NASA and the effects of a crippling accident on a circumlunar expedition. I really liked this story set against the background of the Russian and American space race. As much as these two countries are ideologically opposed, they have very similar attitudes to how they treat their respective cosmonaut and astronaut. What you get with “Gemini 17” is a very human and compelling story about how space does not judge a person on race or gender and the ending, much like the previous story, will have you smiling.

Interspersed amongst the stories, Brad R. Torgersen provides insight into the people who have influenced and guided his path as a writer. The first of these is about the influence that Allan Cole and Chris Bunch have had. Whilst some may find this odd to find in a short story collection, the way in which Torgersen gives kudos to them is refreshing and heartfelt.

This is then followed by the playful and light-hearted “The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project”. This involves the owner of a local community radio station in the desert called K Powell being approached by his neighbour with a rather unique business proposition. Radio piracy and the leaking of random transmissions into the ether can be annoying but as the proprietor finds out there are worse things than the FCC patrolling the airwaves and not everyone wants their “space” polluted with random noise.

“Exiles of Eden” paints another dystopian vision of the universe where humanity has been systematically eradicated by an alien species known as “swarmers”. The central protagonists are sentient ships that were involved in the defence of humanity but due to the overwhelming weight of the swarmers are now scattered throughout the cosmos desperately searching for habitable planets which can support life. Their search has spanned thousands of light years yet in the midst of the blank void there appears a planet what appears to be a colony of post humans who have escaped extermination. But first appearances can be very deceptive on closer examination. Again, there is nothing I can fault here. The story is smart, engaging, exciting and philosophical at various turns. I really liked the characterisation of the sentient vessels and their interaction as it reminded me of Iain M. Banks. I didn’t view them as ships but rather as people with their own distinct personalities. That said, it feels very much Torgersen’s own story as it deals with underlying themes of belief, hope, duty and sacrifice. Like its companion pieces, “Exiles of Eden” grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.

“Writer Dad: Mike Resnick” is another affectionate and heartfelt nod to the influence that said writer had on Torgersen when he was writing and submitting stories to Analog. “Footprints” is a beautifully uplifting tale of a young girl and her dreams of one day walking on the moon. It is related in a fragmentary style where you dip into her life at various points and she experiences various moments of loss, despair, pain and ultimately joy. It is a poignant and hugely engaging story.

Following on from this story is “The Exchange Officers”. This is set in a near future where NASA has been militarised and is engaged in the deployment of Orbital Defence installations. As a logical extension of the current technology deployed on the battlefield, astronauts have been replaced by “proxies”, humanoid drones controlled by operators from Earth. The officers of the title are from the Army and Marines who have exchanged their earthly bodies for metal, servos and feedback systems. Engaged in a routine maintenance mission aboard the platform they are faced with an anything but routine situation when the platform is attacked. Once again, I can’t fault this story. The technology presented here is futuristic and high tech but entirely within the realms of plausibility given the current state of military technology and the increasing use of robotics on the battlefield. Against this hard technology is posed the human story of the proxies’ two human operators and how they came to be part of this service. I just really liked the setting and story.

Technology and more specifically, science fiction’s obsession with it is one of the arguments put forth in the essay that follows “The Exchange Officers”. “On the Growth of Fantasy and the Waning of Science Fiction” is an eloquent, thoughtful and insightful piece from Torgersen about how 21st century science fiction is becoming increasingly irrelevant and isolationist in its themes and preoccupations. Torgersen argues that science fiction has lost its intrinsic sense of wonder or “magic” whereas Fantasy continually provides us with a sense of intangible powers and influences beyond our realms of understanding. It is this sense of there being something else beyond our material and tangible world that Fantasy is at ease with.

Science Fiction, on the other hand, is increasingly preoccupied with materialistic and real world concerns to the detriment of other more interesting questions centred on the spiritual or metaphysical. Torgersen makes a strong case for it as “Dune” and “Star Wars” were massively popular because they had common mystical threads that everyone could attune to. Science Fiction today is becoming increasingly insular in how it approaches humanity and its’ beliefs especially when it comes to religion. It just seems to be taboo for modern science fiction to deal with. The last time I can consciously remember it being a significant part of a narrative was in the “Hyperion” and “Endymion” books. Apart from that… errmmm…. can you give me an example?

This argument is lent even more credence with the next set of stories. Both “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” are stunning, just stunning. The former is set on a planet aptly titled “Purgatory” where human survivors live in constant fear of annihilation by the ever encroaching “Wall” that creeps across the surface of the planet. Humanity, in its expansion through space, has encountered the Mantises. This species has purged all sentient life it has encountered through overwhelming force and technology. The subsequent war has left humanity on the back foot with the very real prospect of being exterminated. The Purgatory survivors seek solace in the sanctuary of the non denominational church run by the eponymous character, Harrison Barlow and live in the fervent hope their execution will be stayed. Into this bleak setting comes one of the Mantises called “The Professor” with a strange request. He, and other intellectuals like him, are interested in the nebulous concept of God and faith as their species cannot fathom why intelligent beings have this predilection. As a result, a bargain is struck between the Chaplain’s Assistant and The Professor which puts the nature of belief and hope at the very heart of the story.

Whilst some of you will no doubt be sitting reading this and going “religion has no place in science fiction!” I would say on the basis of this story it does have a place. I am by no means religious but I would assume that given a large percentage of earth’s population does believe in some sort of deity or there being “something else”, it is a theme that should be explored more fully. Perhaps not on the basis of organised religion but on a much more personalised level of how people react to adversity and insurmountable and interpret it according to their beliefs. The ideas espoused in this may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is just a damn fine story in its execution, characterization and setting and brimming with positivity.

“The Chaplains Legacy” is a novella that follows directly on from the previous story and deals with the aftermath of Barlow’s bargain with the Professor. I don’t think I can describe this without giving too much away but this ends up with Barlow being marooned on a planet with The Professor, The Mantis Queen and a human captain. Like its’ predecessor, it deals with questions about belief and the nature of being but also intersperses the narrative with questions about the negative effects that reliance on technology can have on perception and sense of identity. It is a beautifully crafted tale, deeply thought provoking with vividly realized characters and just the right amount of action and excitement to boot. Torgersen is releasing a full length novel called “The Chaplain’s War” in October and yes, I will definitely be buying a copy on the strength of these two stories alone.

Technology and its’ effects on relationships and sense of identity are explored further in “Exastansis”. This story feels almost like it sits in the same universe as “Outbound” in which humanity has fled into deepest space to avoid annihilation. A solitary survivor on the moon “awakens” or more accurately, is resurrected, from his DNA by his robotic children aeons later to deal with the return of a human vessel. His creations have watched over Earth’s slow regeneration but have had little interaction with humanity since the death of their creator. Perceiving the vessel as a threat they resurrect him and attempt to placate him through emotional manipulation by resurrecting his wife. As one would expect from such a situation, complications are never far behind. This is ostensibly a character piece about a person examining his relationship with his wife. This is a reflective, poignant and, as befitting of the stories here, very, very good.

The final tale in this wonderful collection is “Ray of Light”. Set on Earth in the midst of a new ice age caused by alien intervention, the few humans remaining have taken to the ocean depths living in precarious structures and relationships. The focus here is very much on the immediate and intimate impact that such a disaster would have on a family. A father, whose wife succumbed to the isolation and despair of being enclosed in the claustrophobic confines of their new world, seeks to find his missing daughter. Suffice to say that this is another cracking story. A vividly realised setting where hope seems but a distant memory but as the story progresses, it lifts you out of the pits of despair and hopelessness and rewards you.

Lights in the Deep is just beautiful. I can’t think of anything else to say about the stories contained herein except to say that this is one of those collections that will reinvigorate your interest in and passion for the fantastic realms of possibility contained with science fiction. I can’t recommend “Lights in the Deep” enough. It is absolutely superb and I cannot wait to see what other wondrous delights are forthcoming from Brad R. Torgersen. Brilliant!!!

Lights in the Deep can be purchased at Amazon.com.

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