Quantum Tangle, by Chris Reher (31:23)

IOD-QuantumTangleToday we see a great story summarily executed by Chekhov’s gun.

What I gleaned about the story: Talk about your high-stress first contact situations. When a noncorporeal alien hitches a ride in Seth’s brain stem, he’s dragged light years off course and embroiled in a plot that spells either triumph for his new alien visitor or genocide for their entire race.

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Note: A number of subtle verb tense and grammatical oddities are keeping me from just letting go and slipping into the story. Not quite an immersion buster yet, but it’s a definite friction on the journey.

WTF #1: Inconsistent use of past perfect

Analysis: One of the issues that has contributed to the ongoing friction I mentioned is the use (or absence) of past perfect mode. Some sentences flop back and forth betwene PP and simple perfect. Others seem to want PP but not have it. And now, on page 2, the problem has become frequent enough to catch my conscious attention.

For example, when talking about the history of a nearby colony, we get: At some point it supported a few colonies… When I first read that, I wondered if “some point” might mean “some location,” since it was phrased in the present, but then I realized it was a reference to the deeper past, and should have been “had supported.”

Kudo #1: Engaging situation

Details: Imagine waking up after a hyper-space jump to find an alien hitch-hiker rifling through your stuff. Pretty stressful, huh? Now what if I told you that the “stuff” was your memories and that the hitch-hiker was in your head? This premise is intriguing enough, and engagingly enough written, that it has successfully been distracting me from the minor grammaitcal bugaboos that have been slowing me down.

Note: I’m a couple of chapters into it now and the past perfect problems persist.

WTF #2: Chekhov’s missing gun

Analysis: Most writers know the adage of Chekhov’s gun, which tells us that if a gun is shown in Act 1, it had better be fired before the end of Act III. The corollary to this is that if a gun is going to go off in Act III, it had better be shown somewhere earlier in the play. Otherwise, you’re left with a Deus Ex—some convenient gun just appears in the characters hand when he needs to shoot somebody.

And that’s what happened here, although with some tech gear, not a gun. Our stalwart hero is sneaking around a warehouse, trying to spy on the bad guys, when all hell breaks loose, but first he tosses around some high-tech spy gear (called “crawlers”) that we didn’t know he had.

It’s possible that the author felt this had been covered earlier, with the line: [Seth] dug through his inventory for something suitable for Rishabel. But that was immediately followed by: He normally slouched around the Dutchman in well-worn coveralls but now slipped into a clean shirt and lightly armored jacket, sturdy leather trousers and boots. So to me, “digging through the inventory” was his way of saying he was looking for something decent to wear. Not that he was equipping himself with recon tech.

There’s also a later line: She followed him to the airlock where he picked up his weapons. But to me, “weapons” does not include espionage gear. So when he later pulls the crawler out of his pocket, I had a serious, “Where the hell did that come from?” moment.

Note: Planes? Really? Maybe it’s just me, but casually referring to interstellar jump ships as “planes” just feels wrong. In my mind, planes are small and limited to atmospheric flight—not capable of jumping through hyperspace and providing full life support and habitation for a crew on extended journeys. It’s a peeve, I know, so I didn’t charge a WTF over it, but words matter. Even the small ones.

WTF #3: Slug throwers in space

Analysis: I have a couple of problems with projectile weapons on a space ship or aboard a space station. First, they offer a very high risk of puncturing the hull, which is bad for both target and shooter. And second, if they’re conventional pyrotechnic chemistry guns (which I have no reason to disbelieve, since they shoot “bullets” and I’m given no other description to say otherwise) then they won’t work in vacuum. [I have now been schooled on the chemistry of gunpowder, so the oxygen thing is not a problem. But the puncture risk remains at critical levels, so I still balk at the notion of bullets in space.] For both these reasons, it seems highly likely to me that a society advanced enough to have interstellar travel would have devised a more generally useful weapon, and one that was less likely to cause collateral catastrophes when used.

I am also confused by the seemingly inconsistent nature of the ammunition being employed. At one point, early in the fracas, we see: The silent shot that followed burned a ragged scratch into the plastic wall behind him, which suggests that the bad guys are using energy weapons. But then a moment later we get: Seth lurched aside and saw the bound smugglers and one of the officers turn into a bullet-riddled mass of gore. So now we seem to have bullets flying instead of energy beams. I have a strong suspicion that these really are energy weapons, because up to this point, the word “bullet” is only used in relation to the damage done to its victims, and not to the weapon discharge itself. Perhaps the author has simply overlooked the connotation of referring to laser-burns as “bullet wounds.” But even so, I’m obviously confused enough by the word choice to have lost immersion.

Note: Despite these interruptions, I found the story compelling, with quite an enjoyable relationship developing between Seth and his alien hitch-hiker, so I will be reading more of their tale tonight.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.