May 6th, 2015

The Hugo Ballot, Part 4: Short Stories

"On a Spiritual Plain" by Lou Antonelli takes place on a planet where "the living and the spirits of the dead coexist side by side" for the sentient race there, the Ymilans.  One day a human, Joe McDonald, dies on Ymilas, and then manifests in spirit form.  The human chaplain learns from the Ymilan chief cleric that Joe's soul has to make a pilgrimage to the north pole so it can "move on," and so the three of them -- the chaplain, the Ymilan, and Joe's ghost -- set off from the Terran base near the equator.

I would have liked more description of the Ymilans -- all we're told about them is that they're "large."  I would have also liked more description of the trek across half the planet, but we see only electrical storms, and, towards the end, "diminishing hills."  I would have liked some sense of ceremony or ritual when the soul dissipates, but here Antonelli seems to have anticipated readers like me, because he has the Ymilan cleric say, "I'm sorry, I forget your people put a great deal of stock in theater and rituals, which is to be expected in such an immature race."  Okay, then.

After Joe's soul moves on the chaplain returns to the base.  At the end of the story another Terran dies, and the chaplain offers to make the pilgrimage with him, this time without the Ymilan's help.

And… I have to talk about conflict again.  I don't know why we're all so interested in watching people work their way out of profound screw-ups, but the fact remains that we are.  Partly I think it's from empathy, that we're predisposed to identify with the protagonist, to fear for them when they're in danger and cheer them on when they triumph.  Partly it's just from an intense desire to know what happens next.  It's amazing, when you think about it, that these imaginary people, people made out of nothing more than scratches on a page, can call up such strong emotions.

Whenever I find my interest in a story waning I try to figure out why that is.  And more than half the time it's because things are being made too easy for the protagonist, because they sail from one event to another without being challenged in any way.

Nothing's at stake for the chaplain in this story.  He travels effortlessly to the north pole on a "Faraday segway," and returns home the same way.  Joe's ghost dissipates without any lingering grief on Joe's part.  The chaplain doesn't even struggle with this new challenge to his religion.  And if nothing's at stake for him, then nothing's at stake for the reader.

One final note -- I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the chaplain, although a Methodist, serves all the Terran religions on the planet.  After the death of the second man, a Hindu, the chaplain "called up a copy of the Bhagavata Purana and read it."  (Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with Hinduism to know if this is the appropriate book.  And Wikipedia isn't very helpful: "The Bhagavata Purana includes many stories well known in Hinduism, including the various avatars of Vishnu and the life and pastimes of his complete incarnation, Krishna.")  The Sad Puppies are on record as disliking calls for diversity in fiction, but, as this story shows, perhaps there's a little leeway here.