REVIEW: “The Signal” by Halli Lilburn

Review of Halli Lilburn, “The Signal”, Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 135-142 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The pin for this story is placed in Germany (East Germany, I believe). It’s a short story, so there isn’t much time for clues about its fairy tale inspiration to be dropped — in fact, it was on the first page that I had a sudden lightbulb “Oooh, oooh, I know this one!” moment, even though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly which one it was. I just knew that it was one of the Grimms’ grimmer repertoire, and not one apt for Disneyification (though now I am fascinated by the idea that someone would someday try this). The rest of the story was then read enjoyable along two dimensions. On the first, there where the simple pleasures that come from reading about kick-ass female captains, translations of foreign languages, and mysterious signals from the void. On the second, there was the “I know I should recognize this story, I know I should know which one it is, is that another hint, is that another clue?” dimension, which was all the more deliciously satisfying when the ending came — with an amusing twist — and I was hit with the “oh, that’s right, it’s that one“. Someone who recognises the story sooner will alas not have that part of the enjoyment, but it hit the right spot for me.

A few parts that didn’t hit the spot have to do with a few of the liberties taken with reality. Within the span of two sentences we go from a radio signal that, when certain filters were placed on it, morphed “into a woman’s voice speaking an unknown language” to a point at which “the translation proved the message was urgent”. Unless you’ve got a babblefish on hand, this simply isn’t how the decoding of languages works — if the language were truly unknown, I would have wanted to see the decoding of the signal take decades or more, or I would’ve liked to have been told something about the new technology that makes such quick decipherment possible. I also found it rather hard to believe that rigorous checks weren’t in place when evacuating a ship to prevent people from being left behind; it may be a small detail, but even fiction needs enough verisimilitude to be enjoyed.

These are small niggles. Overall, it was a fun read.