Over the last few years, Mercurio D. Rivera has published some great, intriguing science fiction short stories in markets such as Interzone and Asimov’s. He’s been anthologized in one of Hartwell & Cramer’s annual “Best of” collections, received several honorable mentions in the Gardner Dozois ones, and had a story included in the John Joseph Adams anthology Other Worlds Than These. Thanks to NewCon Press, you can now find a goodly number of his short stories in the excellent new collection Across the Event Horizon.
Reading this book was an odd experience for me, because the one story by Rivera I was familiar with, which I also thought to be his best known story, is possibly the one that’s least representative of his general style: the World Fantasy Award-nominated “Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us.” Maybe that’s why it was placed towards the end of this collection: it forces the reader to experience Rivera’s entire range before hitting that spectacular, shocking story. Of course regular readers of Interzone, where the author contributed a number of these pieces, will have a different experience. For me, Across the Event Horizon was somewhat of a revelation.
In his introduction to this book, Terry Bisson makes the one crucial point that describes Mercurio D. Rivera’s fiction: the presentation of “weird, wonderful and thought-provoking ideas” is central to these stories. (Rivera was a student in Bisson’s Writing SF course at the New School in New York.) As a matter of fact, you can boil down almost all of these pieces to one premise, one innovation or twist or evolution. Just like in the best classic science fiction, everything derives from one point of speculation.
These echoes of classic SF are reinforced by the names in the first two stories included here: “Dance of the Kawkawroons” and “Longing for Langalana.” Those alien names are so melodious and smooth they instantly remind of a bygone age, evoking echoes of old-fashioned, straightforward planetary adventure. There’s a sense of romanticism to them, reinforced by the patterns of exploration and colonization that will immediately ring familiar to genre fans.
This immediately proves to be deceptive, of course. Mercurio D. Rivera gradually introduces a surprising level of ambivalence and complexity into these two first stories. What initially seems benevolent becomes quite the opposite, before evolving again. There are twists followed by more twists, heightening a powerful sense of alienation and menace. The conceptual and ethical switchbacks in these stories are dizzying.
“Snatch Me Another” and “Dear Annabehls” are more obviously connected. A new technology allows people to reach through a portal, into a parallel universe, to pull objects into our reality. Rivera squeezes an amazing amount of this idea’s implications into the first story: comical, economical, societal, existential. The end result is thought-provoking and emotionally gut-wrenching. What should remain unique versus becoming a commodity? What happens when we confuse material comfort with emotional connection? What does “do unto others” even mean when the chances of retribution are inversely proportional to the number of possible universes?
In “Dear Annabehls,” the author then further explores these ideas in the form of a series of gradually escalating “Dear Abby” letters that combine the comical (she recommends intoxicants as the solution for almost everything) with the poignant (watch her automatically put a heteronormative spin on the first story).
A third pair of stories have a less overt but equally interesting connection. Both “Rewind, Replay” and “Naked Weekend” play on the themes of escapism and self-deception, one of them in the context of dealing with a personal trauma, the other expanding the idea to a regulated, society-wide scale. One of them allows editing memories, the other editing emotions. The inability to cope with reality is a theme running through this entire collection, but never so overtly as in these two excellent stories.
Another major theme that pops up in almost all of the stories in Across the Event Horizon is alienation and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of effective communication. “Scent of Their Arrival” is the most literal exploration of this idea (and another great example of using a classic SF format to explore much more modern concepts.) The two interlocutors in “Bargonns Can Swizzle” are separated by time rather than species. The main character of “The Fifth Zhi” is maybe the most tragic example: the loneliness of a clone who discovers there’s a vast gulf even between himself and his clone-brethren.
“Missionaries” is one of my favorites stories in the collection. It explores faith in what I can only (rather lamely) describe as a quantum context. It’s an incredibly moving piece of fiction that reminded me somewhat of Ted Chiang’s excellent “Stories of Your Life.” As evidence of Mercurio D. Rivera’s range, compare this with “Sleeping With the Anemone”, a story that uses blunt comedy to explore some of the same themes as Kij Johnson’s “Spar.” It’s perversely (in more than one way) just as horrific.
And then, maybe just to put a final spin on the entire collection, after all the twists, all the failures of communication, all the ideas that seem to confirm Paul Kincaid’s The Widening Gyre, there’s that final story “Answers from the Event Horizon”: a surprising grace note that’s confusing for its sheer optimism. I glanced at the page for a while, somewhat suspiciously, wondering if I’d misread. In the end, then, a ray of hope—if only, maybe, one that emphasizes the darkness of what came before.
My only reservation about some of these stories is that Mercurio D. Rivera’s tendency to explore a single concept occasionally feels almost too straightforward. The thematic wealth of these stories is sometimes masked by the simplicity of the narrative. This is, of course, deceptive—hence “masked”—and also makes these stories instantly memorable. Still, I’m eager to see how Rivera would carry over and expand on some of these ideas and concepts in the longer format of a novella or even a novel.
Rivera put me on the wrong foot several times throughout this collection by mixing traditions, themes, and ideas. As a reader, I was forced to reconsider initial impressions in several ways. Across the Event Horizon manages to be both accessible and challenging, which is not an easy feat. Recommended.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on April 10th, 2013.