Made in Canada Review
From the anthology Space Inc.
edited by Julie E. Czerneda
Publication July 1st, 2003
DAW Books Inc.
ISBN : 0-7564-0147-X
Mass Market Paperback
Cover art by Jean-Pierre Normand
Reviewed by Pat Forde
The opening of Brian Aldissís magnificent overview of the SF field, TRILLION YEAR SPREE, compresses all of human history down to a few short paragraphs. And when this compressed history reaches the modern era, Aldiss offers us a classic, climactic technology as a symbol of our present stage--but itís not the computer, the Internet, the TV, or even the nuclear bomb. Instead, we see an inexorable, unstoppable engine of progress, a metaphorical beast to carry us all relentlessly forward into the future:
"You are standing on a vast plain. Something appears on the horizon . . . A small brown city with mud walls. A pyramid encrusted with bronze. A ziggurat.
"The monstrous structures loom up and pass, throwing their shadows briefly over the plain. Monuments to life, to death, to conquest. And to piety--the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe drift past.
"Tombs, towers, universities.
"Something else, moving with great noise and gasps of smoke. Nearer and nearer it comes, at first labouring, a cumbersome shape with a high smoke stack. Refining itself as it approaches, writhing through metal metamorphoses. Now it is sleek and streamlined, rushing forth on metal rails, its carriages trailing snake-like behind it. As it hurtles by, there is a hint in its mutating shape of the rocket ship that lies in its future.
"Why is this machine different from all other shapes, as it roars out of the Industrial Revolution towards us?
"Because it has the power to move itself. Because it is the first thing on land ever to move faster than a cheetah, a stag, a galloping horse.
"Because it brings us into a world of timetables, where we have to conform to a thingís convenience, not it to ours."
Ah, the train! That indomitable, dominant technology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--the centuries that gave birth to the SF field . . .
In "Porterís Progress," Toronto writer Isaac Szpindel takes Aldissís metaphor one step further by transforming the train into the spaceship. Szpindelís story is a fusion of periods and styles, a cross between the Jules Vernean Victorian and the Julie Czernedan space operatic.
And itís impressively written. The opening of "Porterís Progress" lets you know youíre in the hands of a short-story writer who knows his craft so well heís able to offer masterful economies of technique.
For instance: Good stories open in the middle of the action, and if the writer does things ideally, the reader quickly gets a sense that the characters introduced in the opening have a life that extends back before the opening events of the story.
Well, "Porterís Progress" takes this ideal to the next level. The story doesnít bother to start with a life-or-death situation; it starts with a death situation, plain and simple--the most potent of opening hooks. Our protagonist, Peter (the space-rail porter of the storyís title), knows heís about to die, knows there is no escaping the momentum of events urging him on to death.
The storyís other central character (a by-The-Book rail engineer named Kianga) refuses even to look Peter in the eye as she helps him prepare for death. The reason given for Kiangaís distance not only establishes that important events happened before our story opened, it turns a particular before-the-opening event into a secondary hook, one that propels the storyís secondary plotline of flashbacks.
Kianga cannot face Peter, weíre told in the opening, because she is "Embarrassed, likely, by her recent loss of control.
"For Peter, there is only Kianga and the air lock door now. Both monolithic, both impassive, but only for the moment. Soon one will yield. One will deliver him to space. Peter has known all materials, polymer, steel, even aluminum, to bend in their way, but he has never known Kianga to do so until now."
The further we get into the story, the more intriguing Kiangaís mysterious breakdown becomes, but we wonít find out what she actually did until the secondary flashback-track catches up to the opening, right before the climax of Szpindelís tale.
I found myself admiring the structure of "Porterís Progress" the further I read. The two-track plotline weaves easily back and forth between the to-the-death rescue mission our protagonist embarks on at the start and the back-story scenes that tell us how the whole mess came about in the first place. A fine way to unfold the tale--and Szpindel times everything marvelously, giving us just the right amount of societal or technological or character background, right when the story requires it most. As a writer, I appreciate how challenging it can be to decide where to drop in expository background details necessary for a story to work.
Szpindelís story paces detail effortlessly. This tale is a textbook example of where and when to put what; there isnít a slow moment in the piece.
As for the prose, "Porterís Progress" is littered with well-crafted turns of phrase.
Commenting on the lack of cuisine aboard a space station:
"A single set of double doors connected to a buffet-style cafeteria that devoured Venus miners and rail personnel alike and spat them out tray-laden and disappointed."
And later, describing Kianga:
"As a porter, it was Peterís job to read people, but Kianga was suspiciously impenetrable. An automaton . . . Tailor-made for the rails. Two meters of stark frame that wasted no energy or emotion or body language. Brown, closely cropped curls hugged her scalp like locomotive detailing...."
Or how about this descrip of a Venusian space community:
"Venus Orbit unfolds before Peter. A massive conglomerate of satellites, barrels, and braces slapped seemingly together like some monstrous Tinkertoy in mid-construction, each section tilting impassively out into the distance."
At the storyís climax, weíre offered a deliciously shivery line:
"Rail ties slice space and time past Peterís head."
(Iím not about to explain why that line is hair-raising; youíll have to read "Porterís Progress" yourself to find out!)
One last quote I have to mention:
"Elias . . . had a true love for railroading that originated with an HO-scale model train set given to him as a child."
One of the reasons "Porterís Progress" resonated so much with me is that, like the character above, I too had a true love of railroading that originated as a child. But not with a model train; hell, no.
My uncles and great-uncles were all rail-men in Dublin, Ireland. And when I was five years old, I was taken into the engine room of a train leaving Dublin station (just the engine; no carriages attached) and allowed to "drive" it--i.e., my uncle let me put my hand on the lever that accelerated the engine. No doubt he kept his hand on it too, although in my memory I drove that train all on my own.
Not all that many memories have stuck with me from the age of five. But driving a train engine is certainly one of them!
P.S. For more Szpindel short SF, I recommend "By Its Cover" in Julieís TALES FROM THE WONDER ZONE: EXPLORER. That one is a Lewis Carrollian kind of piece.