Reviews of "Eden's Child" by Ron Lee and "Cause for A Haunting" by Patricia Strand
Eden’s Child (Amazon, 2016 by Ron Lee and edited by C. Griggs) tells four stories. First we get the story of Earth’s ecological apocalypse. Then we get the story of two human teenagers on an extraterrestrial colony that is attacked by an unknown force. Then we get a “Blue Lagoon” type survival story in which two teenagers are cut off from the rest of humanity and explore their sexuality while fighting against the odds for survival. Finally there is a post-script story of how a loving and noble sacrifice can inspire a nation and melt the heart of a cold career woman. Eden’s Child is science fiction with elements of horror and romance novels. Thus, it is to this book’s credit that it is original enough to defy a simple classification and provides a fairly unpredictable narrative.
But Reading Eden’s Child is like watching a story die the death of a thousand cuts. No single choice made in this very short book damns it, but in the end the book accomplishes nothing. I want to call attention to four things about this short-book that brought it down.
First, the book lacks a literary theme and/or a consistent tone. There were a lot of opportunities for the author to develop a theme or tone in this work. The characters spend most of their time in confined spaces, and confinement could have been an atheistic theme. The characters live in a post-apocalyptic civilization, and the tenuousness of human existence in the face of larger forces could have certainly been a theme. But the prose doesn’t draw our focus to any specific threads of emotion or experience that could link the events in the book to one another.
Second, the book’s prose is rote, blunt and undescriptive. When the main character is wrestling with his own mortality and the life of his child it is described thusly:
“ The sheer willpower was Herculian, …his body screamed inwardly for the water for himself. His body got weaker and weaker.”
Instead of depicting events as details of sensation or perception the author presents the story as a list of facts. The prose is just as flat as the characters.
The third problem is that characters are not fully realized. The characters are young. They are in love. They are noble. Evertt is a problem solver and his companion Sara is agreeable. As for what is going on inside them: once Sara says a small prayer and at one point Evertt feels some perverse gratification that the disaster that befalls his space colony allows him to be Sara’s caretaker. But those two sentences are about all we learn about their inner life aside from lust. There is an argument for keeping characters somewhat blank. Undeveloped characters might allow the reader to better assume the role of the character. Yet this tactic depends on there being some other compelling part of the story.
And there are numerous points in this story that could be compelling. However, the fourth problem with this book is that the descriptions of the settings and the attention to the conflicts lack focus. There are in-depth histories of objects and places in this book that have nothing to do with this story. For example, there is a firearm in the story. The number of bullets it fires is described, when it was manufactured and how it works is all laid out. The gun is never pointed at an enemy, the characters don’t contemplate suicide and the gun never comes into play. The facts of moss-based agriculture are also described in more detail than necessary for the story, and we learn that Wil Smith is a poor employee. I am not opposed to tangents. Pontificating on these various pieces of world building could be useful if it fit or re-enforced a theme. But there is no theme and the tone is inconsistent.
The story does achieve a degree of unpredictability. After I was a fourth of the way through the book I still was being surprised by events. But by the end I came to feel that the dramatic changes were more a result of sloppy story telling than an ambitious author. The story's complexity is poor substitute for depth.
On a more personal level, I found that the portrayal of women and culture in this book was weak and out dated. The main female character’s role is limit to a damsel in distress or an object of romantic fixation. The events in this book take place over 100 hundred years in future and the surviving culture is disgustingly WASPish. The cultural institutions of the extra-terrestrial colony are limited to a bowling alley and a movie theater where the colonists can enjoy a “night out”. To reinforce the 1950s –esque suburban culture look no farther than the food the characters eat: PB and J’s, cereal and milk, bacon and eggs. The author imagines a future in which men are still socially dominant and women stay home to make blueberry muffins. Even though the President of the government is a single female, the author makes a point to describe what a novelty her presidency is and spends more time on her appearance than he does on her policies, ideas or personal history.
Eden’s Child attempts to deal with the emotional and physical perils of childbirth, the complexity and uncertainty of romantic love and the fear of the truly unknown. It fails to approach any of those in an emotionally or intellectually satisfying manner. A story that succeeds in dealing with all these factors is “Cause for A Haunting” by Patricia Strand published in the April 2016 issue of Lightspeed magazine. In Strand's excellent story a very pregnant newlywed woman moves into a house she believes to be haunted. In just over 4000 words Strand conveys the doubt, fear and pain that comes with childbirth and tells us a complete and disturbing “ghost story”. Strand’s protagonist, Kate, is similar to Lee’s female character Sara. She is a victim in many ways and has an uneven power dynamic with her young husband. But Kate is given emotional complexity, intelligence and introspection. Kate also grows in strength as a character. In both stories you have two people struggling for their child’s wellbeing. In both stories you have dramatic changes in plot, conflict and tone between beginning and end. In both stories terrible things happen to a young mother. But in Strand’s story you have a fully realized character that holds the story together and her growth is the arc of the story.