by Douglas McKinney
When I signed on to serve as a fiction and poetry editor for the inaugural edition of James Gunn’s Ad Astra, I have to admit I had my doubts about what we might receive after we told the world we were soliciting submissions. After all, we were brand-new to the scene and most of us had never done something quite like this before. To make matters even more uncertain, we were asking for submissions with a specific theme of “communication and information.” There were times when I wondered if we would have enough strong works to choose from, or whether we would be able to handle the volume of submissions we would discover in our inbox.
I guess you could call it fear.
Fear is the universal motivator. Flight or fight instincts exist for a reason. When faced with the uncertain, the new or the downright terrifying, we have to decide how to respond. I decided early on flight wasn’t an option, or I would never have volunteered my time. All that remained was to fight. In many cases, that meant making time for things beyond reading submissions.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in taking up the fight. We had volunteer readers helping to whittle down the list of potential works, giving me and Issue Editor Isaac Bell a more diverse sampling of opinions to consider before making our final selections. In the end, I can honestly say we chose works that not only pass the quality test, but make significant statements about our chosen theme. As it turns out, fear provides the spark in many of these works, particularly among our Featured Selections for fiction.
In “Colorless Green Ideas,” Shaenon K. Garrity takes a tense situation and makes it even more fraught with the threat of violence by introducing language and generation gaps as impediments to peace. Similarly, Peter Charron’s “Children of the Thousand Days” gives us a future where adults fear the alien in their own children. Even though we don’t know how the stories end, their characters choose to fight fear with communication. If that happened more often in the real world, maybe there wouldn’t be so much to be afraid of.
Adria Laycraft’s “The Agreement” and Eric Cline’s “Native” are less overtly about communication, but they are every bit as concerned with confronting the alien or “other” as their protagonists struggle with their very natures as human beings. Sometimes when you look in the mirror, there’s even more to be afraid of than you’ll find looking out a window. It doesn’t make it any easier when the world outside is filled with bigotry, an even uglier type of fear.
In Nikki J. North’s “Branches on My Back, Sparrows in My Ear,” we meet a woman who is one of the few unconnected individuals remaining in a connected world. Is she motivated by fear? I think so; the fears of being different and being denied that which everyone else takes for granted are powerful incentives to seek change. Unfortunately, sometimes a granted wish can be worse than an unfulfilled one.
When you read “Racing the Moon and the Hill that Burned the World” by Adrian Simmons, you will find no shortage of fear motivating the insectoid inhabitants of a world where humans are a destructive outside influence. What makes the story even more compelling is how well Simmons captures what it might be like to be in the aliens’ metaphorical shoes. Be forewarned: this is not an easy story to zip through. It takes some work to see things from an alien point of view, but I think it is one of the better examples of such attempts I’ve ever read. There are a lot of established authors who have tried and have come up short of what this piece accomplishes.
If you take a closer look at the seven poems we chose as Featured Selections, you may question if some of them even qualify as “speculative” poetry. For example, there are three that might be better described as “technological” poetry. “The Great Silence (Sonnet for SETI)” by Geoffrey A. Landis and “Silent Spirit” by Kenny A. Chaffin may be grounded in the technology of the present day, but it’s what our machines fail to tell us that opens the door to speculation. “Knowledge Stream” by WC Roberts is less specific about its technological muse, but captures a similar sense of wonder about the unknown beyond our reach.
“String Theory” by John Philip Johnson takes a step farther from objective reality to speculate on the nature of information and existence without ever leaving an office cubicle.
“Genome” by Jacqueline Seewald and “We found a kind of vine” by Kevin Rabas both take up topics of genetics, or communication at its most sublime levels. In one, a scientist searches for the kind of perfection he could never be accused of possessing himself. In the other, we discover the ultimate escape hatch for an alien race swept away by human intrusion into their fragile ecosystem. Compared to the Simmons story of alien survival, Rabas shows us an alternative solution to the perils human exploration might cause.
Finally, Katharyn Howd Machan’s “Etilatep” gives us a glimpse at more of that supreme catalyst, fear, and what it does to a wife who loses an entire world in the service of a spiteful, jealous husband. Her only recourse is action, followed by a perhaps futile attempt to connect with the divine. Are her prayers answered? Will her life have meaning? These are questions sentient beings have struggled with for as long as there has been self-awareness, and will continue to struggle with for as long as it exists, in any potential form.
In sum, James Gunn’s Ad Astra presents you with thirteen Featured Selections dealing with a broad spectrum of themes centered on communication and information. Just as I did when reading these works for the first time, I hope you will find within them plenty to think about. Like our patron Grand Master, these writers were not afraid to ask “what if?” and for that I thank them.