Review of Doug Engstrom, “The Lost”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 229-238 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
This is one of the shorter stories in the collection, which is a plus in my book because it’s also 1st-person-present-tense — a combination I find tougher than some to read. Wait — that makes it sound like I’m saying “thank goodness it was short because then I was put out of my misery sooner”, which isn’t at all what I meant. Rather, that when this combination works for me, it tends to work best in shorter rather than longer pieces.
Another reason that makes the POV and tense work here for me is the way in which this otherwise solidly SF story adapts frameworks from fairy tales. In fairy tales, one rarely gets characters, only caricatures. The Beautiful Younger Daughter, the Clever Youngest Son, the Wicked Stepmother, all defined by their labels. In Engstrom’s story, the characters too are identified with their labels, but the labels become names: Engineer, Captain, Ship, Pilot, no definite article, defining their roles and defined by them.
No one is more so defined than Agent, who is the only one of the crew who has “allowed the imperative of privacy to be connected to taboo…stood in the Hall at the Agent’s Academy and seen the shrine dedicated to the Agents who died rather than violate the integrity of the mail” (p. 237). Agent chose this life, chose to allow himself to be defined as Agent, and through his choice this label contains untold power — and an untellable choice.