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Monday, April 21, 2014

"These Walls of Despair" by Anaea Lay

Appeared in Writers of the Future 30.  Author website.  

This tale reminded me of other stories I've read on Strange Horizons (Lay regularly contributes to the website and has published a story there), the kind of thing that Carol Emshwiller might do.  The world takes an abstraction and makes it literal, yet it is never exactly played literally, either, giving the tale a funky ambiance that's weird but never quite real--half SF, half allegory, half surreal.  Generally, it's the level of description, which is that of a minimalist literary story even though it's strange enough to beg for more.  The author usually focuses on character over description.  This type of tale is common enough to deserve a moniker.  Let's call it Emshwiller-esque or Emshwillesque, which is easier on the tongue.  If you think of a better name, let me know.

Here Georg is a sentimancer, he gives, takes, mixes emotions for people--whatever they need to get through the situation they're going through.  In this case, Georg is still new at his art and works at a prison.  The prisoner has tried to end the world by waking Dhalig Mora, a creator.  She gloms on to how Georg is new at this (or incompetent) and challenges him to learn despair before she will tell him what he wants to know.  His trainers, however, won't teach him.  Why?
"There's no such thing as a bad emotion.  People feel, and need to feel.  It's our job to free them from the limitations or short circuits in their bodies that can miss one step or get stuck on another."
In other words, they're there to help. Georg runs into the hollow people, one imitating a loved one who passed away.  Georg expects death but it doesn't come. Next, he retraces the antagonist's step to find out exactly what the prisoner did.  She had claimed to have had hollow people attack her vehicle but not her person, which seems unlikely.  Georg does learn what he needs but sees, too, the prisoner's plans are worse than he imagined.

The world is so rich that towards the tale's end we are still learning new terms about it without explanation.  Likely this is part of a novel.  Nonetheless, the story works as is, although you'll have to keep on your toes.  On reflection, I would like to read more of this world.  It is so simple to destroy the world that I wonder how it keeps itself together, which could make for a rather fascinating ecology.

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