Old Reviews

What we talk about when we talk about killing.

Reviews of “We Hit Back” by Sean Patrick Hazlett and “Battle Lines” by J.W. Alden


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There is a terrific hook in the opening of Sean Patrick Hazlett’s story “We Hit Back” (Abyss and Apex, 2017, Issue 61, Q1).  “We Hit Back” begins with the classic description of American corporate hubris; an executive sits comfortably in his office, on his television are images of horrific violence a world away and the executive’s response is to see an opportunity for financial gain. On cue the executive’s, his name is Lionel, world comes crashing down.  Lionel receives a phone call from his son who is being held hostage by cyber terrorists. The unseen attackers have hacked Lionel’s son’s car and are driving the 20-year boy at high speeds down the San Francisco freeway.  I love the way Hazlett presented and unpacked these events, the entire episode is almost entirely dialog. Lionel talks to his son, talks to his co-workers and the police as he tries to save his son. By using dialog to move the events Hazlett lays out Lionel’s character while staying focused on the action.  From the subtext alone we learn that Lionel is a pragmatic, disciplined man of action who responds quickly and decisively to threats.  The opening is an engaging and tightly written piece of prose. Perhaps Hazlett should have stopped there.

After the attack on his son, Lionel decides that cyber security needs to be proactive.  He proposes a system whereby the forces of corporate America (with government approval) will actively hunt down the cyber criminals and hacktivists of the world.  Again these events are unpacked via dialog during a boardroom exchange in which the moral pitfalls and dangers of Lionel’s plans are debated.  Have you ever read or seen a sci-fi yarn where the morality of technology is debated and the people come to the right decision?

Of course, Lionel starts a quest for cyber vengeance. He assembles his hunter-killer teams, brushes off the ACLU and catches a cat burglar who uses the Internet to case the houses of the wealthy.  Hazlett’s story begins to ramble at this point.   One of Lionel’s colleagues goes rogue and uses Lionel’s cyber-infrastructure to flame armed conflict between China and Russia.  Lionel maintains his moral standing by running a sting on the amoral colleague and finally catching his son’s attacker.  

It is the final confrontation with his son’s attacker that undermines the whole story.  In a narrative that has been built on Lionel’s conversation with others, the climax awkwardly moves away from Lionel to a conversation between a hacker not previously named in the story and a talk show host. Lionel’s revenge is presented as an ego stroking fantasy.  Lionel is addressing an audience that cheers in approval when he screams “We Hit Back”, and then Lionel directs their attention to a monitor so he and the audience (that includes the readers) can watch the story together. Not only is this out of step with the rest of the story, but the climax that follows is unsatisfying.

Lionel’s revenge is not an intelligent moral reckoning or even an emotionally cathartic exchange between a father and the man that attacked his son. Lionel’s revenge essentially amounts to “punking” the hacker.  The hacker is brought on to a talk show under false pretenses. The hacker is insulted in front of a crowd of strangers and everyone is shown embarrassing pictures of the hacker in his underwear. It is a juvenile and disappointing ending to a story that started out very well.

In the extremely short story “Battle Lines” by J.W. Alden (Fantasy Scroll Magazine, 2016, Issue #11) we also have a man wrestling with the morality of being in a mortal struggle with other human beings in a confined area.  Where Hazlett used the interconnectedness of the on-line world to push his characters together, Alden’s characters are locked together on a spaceship.  Also like Hazlett’s story, the central conflict comes not from the attempts by the characters to best their opponents, but from the moral consequences of those attempts.  Finally, Alden also uses dialog, subtext and the reader’s intuition to unpack the story.  

“Battle Lines” opens with a confusing description of a character in a moment of contemplative joy, but we soon learn that those events were a dream and the character’s reality is a tight gray room.  Opening with a dream is generally a trite start, but here it works as describing the characters as Earthmen who rather be somewhere else and have interests well beyond killing one another. The rest of the story plays out as a conversation between two antagonists who are duty bound to kill each other but have no emotional desire to do so. The resolution comes not from learning who kills whom, but whether or not they are going to try.

Short fiction and poetry editor Lorin Stein recently said in an interview with comedian Aparna Nancherla that he believes “most fiction starts with two people in a room”. The sought-after editor then lamented that many authors choose to keep the action in one character’s head. I can see why some writers might find it difficult to move a story forward with interpersonal dialog.  The writers must be forced to consider and imagine the internal mind of each character, and then express that mind via the imperfect piece of the iceberg that is the spoken word.  As readers, dialog driven stories require more work because we are not only reading the words but we are reading the subtext. I was impressed with how both stories I reviewed today used dialog to unpack the events, build up characters and explore conflicts. While “We Hit Back” could have been a tighter story and more thoughtful story, I enjoyed the approach both writers took to storytelling and look forward to more from them in the future.