“On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014)
If this had been longer than fifteen pages I would not have finished it. After I did finish it I looked up the elements of a story to see what was missing. By the most tenuous thread this story had Character, Setting, Plot, Conflict, and Theme.
There is the main character who self describes but doesn’t really seem to have the skills associated with his self description.
…his look of discomfort and anxiety was so pronounced my natural pastoral reaction was to put him at ease. “It’s OK, Joe, I’ll help you any way I can. Stay here with me.” I commed the base Commander. “A quick question,” I asked. “Was Joe McDonald the first human die…”
I don’t know about you but this would in no way put me at ease if I had discovered I was a ghost.
The other characters just don’t make sense but I will put that on the main character through which we view them all as simple, one dimensional, easily manipulated objects. The base commander in particular is ridiculous. Compare military personnel to Bujold or Moon or Scalzi to see a wide variety of believable commanders both effective and ineffective at their jobs.
Descriptions in this story are vague bordering on annoying.
Despite the many dissimilarities between the two planets, one thing Ymilas has in common with Earth is a tilted axis, and therefore seasons–as well as long polar days.
At one point we’re told the planet is wet but there’s no mention of vegetation. Some color words are used and shape words but they don’t paint a picture or even an emotion.
Of course, I couldn’t see Joe, but it was usually obvious from Dergec’s “body language”–a strange term considering how different Ymilans are from humans–where Joe was.
No description of the aliens is given other than the occasional use of the word bulk. There’s a lot of rationalizing the world with why it might be the way it is but not a lot of what it really is.
A space chaplain discovers that the magnetic field of a planet captures not just the native’s spirits but also the souls of human beings. He takes the shortest twelve day pilgrimage ever with the ghost and reassures it that even though it’s soul is here it’s spirit is already in heaven. The base commander agrees this isn’t worth sharing with humanity at large and puts him entirely in charge of the post-death rites of all humans on the planet. Now that he knows the way to the alien-henge where souls are released he tells the aliens that he has no need of their assistance. The aliens take his assertion of mastery as well as the ghosting of humans with complete equilibrium.
…Dergec said some Ymilans expressed something akin to admiration for Joe and myself. “They are proud of you,” he said. “They say humans are finally Ymilans now.”
There was a moment where the base commander didn’t want to give up their only segway for a random expedition by the base chaplain but immediately gave in when the ghost started going all poltergeisty.
“Bureaucracy is your problem,” I snapped. “Do you want a haunted base?”
On cue, her case folder slid off his desk and slammed on the floor. The Commander jumped up from her seat. “I felt something on the back of my neck!”
I sighed. “Do you believe my ghost story or not?”
She began to type on her desktop. “Take your segway…”
“The theme is the central idea or belief in a short story.” Souls. Spirits. The ancient Egyptians were right! Aliens are superior to us until we figure out where their temple is then we can do the rites without them. Though I have to say it feels more like a random, tired idea than a theme to the story itself.
This story read as a pitch for an idea for a story and not a finished story. I read the whole fifteen pages because I really want to take this year’s Hugo Nominees on good faith. I tried to highlight the elements that made this story fall below “No Award” on the Hugo ballot for my vote.