Book Review: Lights in the Deep I

CL provides the initial take on Brad Torgersen’s anthology, Lights in the Deep:

The SF/F genre is one I’ve enjoyed for years and am a fan of Larry
Niven.  Stories like ‘Ringworld’ and ‘Neutron Star’ captured my
imagination.  So, after reading Torgersen’s self-described style being
like Niven’s, and the hope of finding a great-read in a genre I enjoy, I
took the plunge and volunteered to provide a review.

Lights in the Deep is a compilation of 10 short stories, all previously published.  It begins with 3 glowing reviews of Torgersen’s writing and story telling ability by veteran publishers/editors he has worked with.  After reading these introductory reviews, my hopes for an enjoyable experience were raised even further.

What could there be not to like?  Niven-type Sci-Fi.  Praise from veteran Sci-Fi publishers and editors.  Short stories, which make for quick reading and lots of variety.  Sounds like the perfect setup for either the discovery of a new treasure or deep disappointment.

It is with sadness that the verdict is ‘deep disappointment’. The disappointment stems from three issues and one ironic observation.  The issues: pointless stories, the inclusion of ‘the story behind the story’ after each tale, and rampant political correctness.  The ironic observation will be summarized later.

Having reviewed the disappointments, it must be noted there are positive aspects of the book.  Torgersen writes very well.  Story pace, literary elements and vocabulary are all really superb.  I kept thinking, “This guy writes well.  Maybe the next story will have a message, meaning, challenge, etc.”  But the next story failed to deliver and then it was on to the next.

Of the 10 tales, there are a couple stories that are somewhat engaging.  The issue of “pointless stories” infected every tale.  Whether the story is pure Sci-Fi or alternate history, there is not an underlying moral challenge, message, belief explosion or anything that made me sit back and ponder or question or exclaim.  Each telling concludes and its just over.  No surprises, no deus ex machina, no anger or relief, just an end to the words.

Unfortunately, the words didn’t really end.  After each tale, Torgersen then tells another tale about how the story came to be and who published it.  This was like rubbing salt in the wound.  As I was scratching my head asking why I spent 30-60 minutes reading the just concluded story, I then had to endure the history of how the story came to be.

The ‘story behind the story’ can be interesting, if the story itself leaves one: moved, pondering, angry, motivated, enlightened, etc.  But here, I left with the same feeling one gets after watching the vacation slide show of a family you don’t know, “That must have been nice for you, but I don’t really care.”

Next was the rampant Political Correctness.  These ranged from Black-American male and a Soviet-Jewish woman astronauts in the ‘60’s, to female commanders, a female President of the U.S., female battle marines, Asian business owners, etc., etc., etc.  I can take the occasional challenge to stereotypes, especially when it is backed with an underlying purpose, but when most characters are an anti-stereotype it seems to be attacking your basic perception of things as racist or bigoted, for no reason at all.

This feeling arose because there never was a reason why each person had to be identified in the anti-stereotypical way.  There was no background, benefit or reason why the heroine in the first story or the astronaut in the second had to be black.  Why a Jewish woman astronaut in the ‘60’s? How did knowing the businessman was Asian in a later story add anything?  Why a female base-commander?  Because these are short stories, the addition of the anti-stereotypical characteristics seemed forced in simply for the purpose of being P.C. not because they were relevant to conveying a point.

I was left with the impression that either Torgersen majored in women’s studies or feels anti-stereotypes are necessary in order to be published by today’s liberal publishing houses.  Either way, too much PC in any story, but especially in a short story, makes it seem silly.  In one very short story we have a female president, female base commander and female marine.  Rather than Sci-Fi, it felt like Fem-Fi instead.

This brings us to the final point, the ironic observation.  In the middle of the book, Torgersen writes an essay on why he believes Sci-Fi readership is dwindling, even as Fantasy readership remains strong.  He cites two reasons: our technological advances make Sci-Fi less ‘fantastic’ and the secularization of Sci-Fi has resulted in most Sci-Fi lacking an underlying morality or purpose for the story.

What makes this ironic is the lack of an underlying purpose or morality in the stories contained in this book!  There are several attempts to mention God, but they seemed thrown in, rather than meaningful additions to the plot.  So, Torgersen is correct.  One reason Sci-Fi is dying is because many formerly avid readers are longing for purpose and meaning to be conveyed in a story.

However, Torgersen missed another major reason for the failure of modern Sci-Fi.  Namely, Political Correctness, of which these stories are supporting evidence.  Too often today, Sci-Fi authors are constrained by PC to take the story to its logical PC conclusion.  Their worlds are turned upside down, where warriors are women, back-stabbing politicians are women, the random support character has to be gay or a kid with a middle-eastern mother and a Polish father.  The fact the author has to add these character descriptions are proof they are forced.

I submit the real reason Sci-Fi is dying on the vine, is because Sci-Fi has become the realm in which the liberal vision of how humanity ‘should be’ is presented to the public and the public rejects it.  Based on these stories Torgersen has fallen into the same PC failure trap.  If he can escape, and then add the purpose and meaning he notes is missing from Sci-Fi today, then he definitely has the literary prowess to become an excellent author.