The first time I read Brad R. Torgersen’s work was when David Conyers suggested I check out his first collection, “Lights in the Deep”. From the word go I was hooked. Here was a clear, distinctive and fresh voice brimming with style, great ideas, vivid characterization and engrossing storylines. When I heard that Torgersen had a new short story collection in the offing my initial thought was would there be the possibility of lightning striking twice? Well, err….yes and no would have to be the answer. Overall, this is a collection of really good science fiction stories that is full of heart, excitement and energy save for a few stories that were just okay.
First out of the gate is “The Curse of Sally Tincakes”. This chronicles the battles of a tenacious female racer hoping to overcome the title curse of the last female entrant on the grav bike circuit. She comes up through the ranks and has to face a notorious moon race that has defeated many a participant. I rather liked this story as it deals with familiar tropes that Torgersen weaves into his stories such as resilience, hope, battling the odds and pulling through. Next Up is the “Bricks of Eta Cassioepa” which is a poignant look at the process of colonisation from a realistic perspective. How does civilization build itself when transportation of raw materials and labour is an inherently expensive proposition across space? By using indigenous raw materials and penal labour to build bricks. This is a lovely little story that again weaves thematic props like compassion and redemption into its narrative to produce an engrossing tale.
“Guard Dog” is a solid slice of military science fiction that asks questions about ethics in war, political manipulation and the use of robotic drones on the battlefield. The “Guard Dog” is effectively a cybernetic warship crafted from the remains of a crippled veteran. These creations have been tasked with defending the solar system from a breakaway faction intent on our annihilation. Or so the initial narrative would have you believe. Entombed within his metal hull, the protagonist reminisces over his life and memories whilst awaiting border incursions from the Sortu. As he patrols the lonely void he begins to realize that all is not as it seems in our battle with them and he is an unwitting pawn in a game of deception and betrayal. Again, I can’t fault this one. Torgersen is probably the only science fiction writer I have read who makes military science fiction resonate with heart and soul.
Like his previous collection, Torgersen pays tribute to those people who have helped inspire, help and shape his writing career. Together with his story introductions, I do like these short intermissions. They are quite genuine and heartfelt thanks to those who have helped and influenced him. It just adds another dimension to your usual writer’s collection of stories and gives a glimpse of why his writing feels so engaging. The first of these is “Counsellor: LE Modesitt Jnr”. Next up is “Recapturing the Dream”. This follows the lonely existence of Henrietta, the sole remaining crewmember of Riga 33, a resource rich asteroid. A mass of anxiety and neuroses, she squirrels herself away from all human contact and is drifting through space until one day she is visited by the industrialist who funded the original mission. What follows is a dissection of how she went from an enthusiastic and passionate mission member to her present state of post traumatic stress disorder and avoidance of human contact. It again deals with familiar Torgersen ideas of hope and redemption and the idea that whilst everything may seem lost there is always a way to come back from the edge of oblivion.
The first of two detective styled stories is “The Flamingo Girl”. This is set in the summering heat of a near future LA where call girls have been surgically and genetically enhanced to be more avian like. It is an offbeat but ultimately tragic love story that is more about loss and betrayal. This is then followed by “Reardons Law” which is very much a piece of sci-fi action escapism. This long story is centred on Kaliope Reardon, a covert special agent sent into the mysterious “Occupied Zone” to recover Archangel powered battle armour. It is just a fun bit of writing. Camarro Jones is the protagonist in the second detective story “Blood and Mirrors”. She is a former sexbot turned cop on the trail of simulated human beings. I rather liked this story with its musings on the nature of life, be it artificial or human and what it is that actually defines our humanity. I’d be interested to read more stories featuring her as a protagonist. Following on from these is the second narrative break called “Mentors” which is a short tribute to Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta.
The next couple of stories were for me, okay but not what I’d call great. With “The Shadows of Titan”, I had actually read it before in an anthology called “Space Eldritch” and it struck me as ok. My opinion hasn’t really changed. The story, co-written with another author, is styled as a science fiction story with nuances of horror and Lovecraftian overtones. What I got was a story that didn’t really meld its disparate elements, didn’t send shivers down my spine and felt like I had read and seen it many, many times before. Science fiction and Lovecraft’s theme of eternity old cosmic horror would appear to be the perfect match. Man’s exploration and push into the void would reveal how insignificant he is in relation to the cosmos’ infinite age and expanse. Unfortunately it just doesn’t quite work for me in “The Shadows of Titan”. The premise involves explorers landing on the surface of Titan and discovering a strange pyramidal structure. Naturally, being the foolhardy type of crew who ignores instructions and decide to show initiative instead of caution they venture into the unknown and disturb things that should have been left undisturbed. “Shadows of Titan” isn’t a bad story per se but it is just felt rather cobbled together and didn’t really strike me as being particularly steeped in the gnawing dread, atmosphere and frights I’d associate with the Lovecraftian or horror styles. Disappointing is the word that comes to mind.
Similarly, “The Nechronomotor” isn’t really horror but presents a different take on zombies. In this tale a reanimated corpse goes back in time to try and get its present self to change its ways. The story has existentialist tones and asks questions about personal choice and free will. Again, it was a story that was good but just didn’t quite have that extra oomph to get me all excited. “The Hideki Line” postulates that there are time lines that extend back into the past a couple of seconds through to the titular line that goes thousands of years back. What would you do if you had the opportunity to use this route way once and once only? Again, it is a solid enough slice of storytelling. “Peacekeeper”, written in collaboration with Mike Resnick, is another piece of military science fiction chronicling a confrontation between human soldiers and the alien Sindar in a universe controlled by shadowy corporate interests. It is a terse, tight story with just the right balance of action and pathos. This is then followed by yet another heartfelt nod to someone who has guided Torgersen’s career as a writer entitled “Teacher: Dave Wolverton”.
The final story in the collection is rather special it must be said and is a great example of the type of short science fiction storytelling that Torgersen excels at. “Life Flight” is an epic trek across the emptiness and loneliness of space as experienced by one unfortunate individual aboard a generation ship. It is recounted via diary entries and provides a fragmented narrative from the perspective of a child through to old age. In this, the narrator is a child who initially cannot enter cryostasis alongside his family and must endure the decades long journey between the stars in real time as caretaker of the sleeping colonists. It is a poignant and emotional piece about an individual’s responsibility to the greater good alongside thoughts about the nature of loss and loneliness. It is one of those stories that captures the essence of Torgersen’s writing style and themes and demonstrates why he is a writer that cannot be easily dismissed.
So, all in all this is a pretty good collection. It isn’t quite up to the standards of his debut collection but there is more than enough here for people looking out for quality characters and stories to enjoy.