REVIEW: “The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw

Review of Vivian Shaw’s, “The Utmost Bound”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In “The Utmost Bound” Vivian Shaw uses the routine of everyday life in space to ease the reader into her story. There is much ordinary dialogue, chatter about conditions, and thoughts about the dreary on-board food. It’s clear that the story’s protagonist, Commander McBride, has become accustomed to his life in space. Everything that might stand out as new and strange to the reader is old and familiar to him; even annoying. The view is ‘predictable’ the sky is ‘Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.’

His colleague Artanian also finds that space holds few terrors, and is just a series of regular, fact-finding missions passed down to them by their reliable connection in Hawaii, on Earth. In a way, maintaining the ordinariness of the experience is how they cope with the fact that they are working in extraordinary conditions – ‘The conversation between them was part of the morning ritual: the conversation meant they were still people, out here in the black.’

Of course, this is how many horror movies start – with quite ordinary people, going about their regular lives, until something terrifying subverts all that normality. Often the destruction of all that normal stuff emphasises the horror that comes after. And I think that’s the structure “The Utmost Bound” is playing with, as it builds its own story of space terror. However, this story is more about the cerebral terror of discovering the limits of humanity than about the terror or finding alien monsters in space.

While the story certainly brings some political horror to the surface, it loses some of its impact because the main characters are physically safe (although mentally shocked). It lacks the immediacy of media like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (which it references), because its characters are removed and reporting rather than directly involved. And, while the monstrosity of what they have seen brings a vivid depiction of governmental disdain into the story, it is perhaps too easy for the reader to shuck off their feelings at the end of this story. At least, while McBride remains haunted, and concerned about the scale of what may have happened, these feelings didn’t quite stick with me as I exited the story.