I know what it is to have touched the void, to have looked out into the vast, empty universe and know the truth—that more than any living being in the fourteen billion year history of our cosmos I am alone, surrounded by nothing but emptiness and the horrid finality of death.
So speaks a character in Andrew Nienaber’s “What We Found” on the final page of Fear the Abyss. His is in some ways a unique state, the sole survivor of a Plague that has destroyed the remainder of humanity, no matter how far scattered among the stars, encompassed not by an endless futurity but by the dead words of a past that has suddenly become meaningless.
Yet in another sense, the same words could almost serve as a leitmotif for nearly every character, for nearly every final scene in Fear the Abyss. In story after story, one by one, individuals are stripped of supports, their fellows removed by death or transformation, their most fundamental beliefs dissolved … and, alone, they must face the abyss, the unknown.
The stories in the collection range from the personal and interior to the public and exterior; the landscapes, from the unseen workings of a single mind, to plague-ridden streets where death is not an end but merely a transition, to planets far distant in time and space. Yet in each, the essence of humanity — variously defined and variously characterized — confronts darkness and must make a choice to embrace it … or to disappear.
This is not to say that there is no humor among the stories, albeit a rather peculiar species of dark humor. Nelson W. Pyles’ “A Box of Candy” adds one twist to the eponymous receptacle that both intensifies the revulsion and keeps it from overwhelming readers through a consistent undercurrent of near-farce. And there is a certain element of the comic in the abrupt transition from a subjective immersion in horror after horror graphically displayed to the matter-of-fact, objective tone in the final paragraphs of S. C. Hayden’s “The American.”
Paul Anderson’s “A Nice Town with Very Clean Streets” suggests a kind of Bradburyian longing for the past in its title, creating a tone rather like that of several stories in The Martian Chronicles, then juxtaposes a Lovecraftian monstrosity that makes the initial image even more appalling. Jeyn Robert’s “Life after Dead” rings a variation on another familiar trope — life after death — and in doing so asserts that the only way to survive a glimpse into the abyss is to hold to its opposite … love. Lawrence C. Connolly’s “Human Caverns” reveals the unwelcome truth that sometimes we must run toward the unknown in order to avoid the greater horrors of that which we know but do not comprehend.
Time and again, Fear the Abyss presents possibilities — and occasionally impossibilities — that strain the definitions of what it is to be human, what constitutes life and death and love, what we can hope for in an increasingly technologically oriented world, one that grants less and less grace to individuals struggling to maintain a tenuous hold on their humanity.
For multiple glimpses into a full range of visions, all centering on what lies beyond the limits of knowledge, check out Fear the Abyss. It will disturb, but it won’t disappoint.
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