Saturday, May 09, 2015

Review: “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart

Review: “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Cards InterGalactic Medicine Show, May 2014) SP 

A Sad Puppy, but not Rabid Puppy, nominee, AADDEA is the first Gray Rinehart story I've read.

Warning: There will be spoilers. Go read it first if you don't want to be spoiled.

The hardest part of this story to get through is the beginning, where the author describes going through a door into a roofless building. Rooflessness will become important later, but the aliens' door is only discussed once and I've literally spent an hour trying to work out how it must look.

"The door leading to the Tephrist's studio reminded Cerna of a clam's shell turned on its side, except it was grossly oversized, indigo-painted, and steel. […] As the door-halves swung apart on smooth tracks, Cerna resisted the urge to pull his friend away. The interlocking flutes were sharp edged and equipped with heavy-duty pins as long as his forearm that secured it in the off-hours."

Which part of a clam shell is its "side"? I think of them as sitting with their hinge on the sea floor, fluted jaws upwards so as to be able to grab frogmen by their flippers in 60's sci-fi shows, but I'm willing to contemplate that they could lie on one half of their shell, with the top half lifting upwards, as in the plastic bubbling clam shells you get for amusement in 20 gallon aquariums.  Assuming in either case that the bit that is on the bottom is the foot, which bit is its side? I can't visualize what a clam's "side" must be.

And the sentence "The interlocking flutes were sharp edged and equipped with heavy-duty pins as long as his forearm that secured it in the off-hours" boggled my mind. I guess the sudden appearance of an "it" must refer back to the singular door in the first sentence of the story, not "his forearm" which is the only singular thing in the sentence. I imagined it - the door- must be like the pods that revealed the band members in Spinal Tap (except for the luckless Derek Smalls), although I would say those clam shells were on their ends rather than their sides. But I couldn't make that image work. There's a room behind the door. How does a clam shell in any direction open to reveal a room behind it? I think it would have helped if Rinehart or his editor had gone over this description to fine tune it a little. Or a lot.

Anyway, letting that go, our heroes get into the room behind the door where they see:
"The ceiling was mostly open to the afternoon sky, typical of Peshari construction, but buttresses rose from the corners that were interconnected with steel bars."
Now – spoiler – the aliens, the Peshari, are afraid of things that might fall and bury them. This is the major plot point. I can see why the writer would want to stress their buildings have buttresses early in the story. I can't see, however, why the buttresses would be on the inside. They normally go on the outside of a building in order to hold the wall against the outward push of high or heavy ceilings, which this building doesn't even have.

And let's not get started on "but buttresses" which sounds like an Eminem mid-song ad-lib and now that it's stuck in my mind I keep blurting it out loud.

And once again, I'm not readily visualizing where the steel bars are supposed to fit in. 

The rest of the early descriptions don't get much clearer. 
"A few bricks were adorned with dead Peshari in miniature bas-relief."
'Adorn' doesn't just mean decorate, or ornament. It has a subtle hint of 'to make beautiful' which jars with the adjacent use of "dead Peshari".  And anyway, they aren't actual dead Peshari, they are sculptures of Peshari who have died, one per brick. "Bas-relief" eventually makes that clear but reading the words in the order they were written made me think of a Peshari Kali, adorned with a necklace of dead Peshari heads.

A couple of paragraphs later, Peshari is spelled "Pehsari".  Whoever edited this isn't getting my vote for Hugo best short-form editor, that's for sure.

After this it settles down a bit. The humans are part of a colony which was invaded a few years after its founding by the alien Peshari. The aliens are allowing the humans to live, barely, but are clamping down, year by year, on what tech the humans are allowed to use. There is an interesting and well-written middle describing the colonists, their lives in what amounts to a concentration camp, and their plans. The older man in the initial scenes is dying, since his access to medicine has been rescinded by the aliens. He went to the "Tephrist's Studio" to ask the Tephrist to make him one of those memorial bricks. But he does not want his cremains baked into the brick, as Peshari do. He wants what we later realize is a headstone. He does not tell the Tephrist this, but he wants to be buried, with a grave-marker.

He dies; he is buried. The aliens are so horrified that a supposedly sapient species can bear to be below a covering, especially of dirt, that it throws their whole human-management system into disarray. The story fades away at this point. The humans are gearing up to rebel, but they are going to do it after the story ends, and what part this confusion and repulsion in the minds of the Peshari plays in the rebellion, we never learn.  The last scene also makes it clear that the dying human took his own life near the end by an overdose of pain meds, but whether that engenders a John C Wright-level of revulsion on the narrator's part, I can't tell. 

Not being a co-religionist with a puppy is hard. What the doctor-assisted suicide of a dying man means to another colonist, we don't learn and I can't intuit. In addition, the narrator stresses:
"Phil told me he wanted to claim a plot of land all his own. And he believed in the resurrection of the body. I took that to mean that he wanted his body to inhabit his plot of land."
Is the aliens' reaction to the burial intensified because the man is not dead, but sleeping? I can see why that might horrify them, since they have that primal fear of enclosed spaces. Or are they terrified that when he wakes up he will fight them? It's hard to tell whether it's the misunderstanding of the Christian message(s) or something else that's bugging them.

Add that to the poor editing, the confusing descriptions, and the buried-lede rebellion, and this one doesn't rise to Hugo-worthy in my opinion, puppy or no puppy.

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