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The Touch
created by Steven-Elliot Altman
edited by Patrick Merla
(ibooks, $14.00, 347 pages, paperback; October 2000; received May 5, 2001)
A Write Aid project to benefit the charities HEAL and FACT

Imagine the problem facing the potential reviewer of a charity anthology -- the authors have contributed for free, and so it cover scanmust have been especially difficult for the editor to turn any offering down. Of course, one wants the venture to succeed: the charity, and the people dependent upon it, need as much support as they can get. At the same time, the reader -- the person who may go out and spend $14.00 on the book -- must not be misled as to its quality. The dilemma can best be expressed in the following terms: "What the hell do I do if the bloody book's no bloody good?"

Luckily, this is not a worry that affects The Touch. Of the 23 stories here, only two are weak (and those by two of the most famous authors to contribute); perhaps two are so-so, but all the rest vary between good and excellent, with the average probably being somewhere around the "extremely good" mark and one story in particular being a gem.

So, the mechanics:

This is a theme anthology, the theme being that, sometime in the near future or even the near past, a new epidemic has inflicted humanity. The form this epidemic takes is that those infected by the disease, should they touch a non-infected human being, will deprive that human of one or more senses. In most of these stories the sense concerned is a fairly obvious one: sight, hearing, sexual desire, speech. In some it is more subtle than that. A few of the most effective stories concern such subtleties: in one the sense involved is the ability to order one's experiences, in another it is the ability to hear music in one's head, and in a third it is the ability to recognize faces. At the same time there are a couple of exceptional stories that use the more obvious senses as their underpinnings. What all of these outstanding tales share is a focus on the human aspects of either (a) being deprived of a sense or (b) being one of the witting or unwitting infecters, a "Depriver".

The arrangement of the stories accords approximately to a chronology of the spread of the Depriver disease, with the earliest stories happening a little before 2001 and the later ones being set well into the future. The stories do not actually pull together to form a coherent pseudo-history, but this does not matter: what is important is that the idea itself has sparked off such a plethora of good stories. A measure of the general quality is that, after reading a bunch of these stories, you have to remind yourself to remember that touching another human being in real life is actually (probably) safe enough.

What, then, are the best stories of a very good bunch?

Karl Schroeder's "After the War", set in the former Yugoslavia during the civil war there that the West largely just watched, is a study of victims, both those who have suffered directly from the massacres and those who have been sufficiently brutalized by the political and racist climate to perpetrate those massacres. It is a moving tale, reminding us that we condemn others at our own peril.

In a way Harry Turtledove's "The Lieutenant" does the same, although here the viewpoint is different: whereas Schroeder's story looks from the inside at the very human tendency to condemn -- seeing it as rooted in the predilection to victimize -- Turtledove's story regards these twin motivations from the outside, seeing both as based in self-interest. "The Lieutenant" loses power as a result, but is nevertheless a fine tale; in other company it might be outstanding.

Diane Dekelb-Rittenhouse's "Gifted" truly is outstanding. It centres on a precociously young musician who falls for an older (not much) patroness of the arts who is a Depriver. The touch of her hands is enough to induce deafness in others. The musician himself has already been deprived of his talent in a more mundane fashion: a child prodigy not just as a player but as a composer, he has been robbed of his ability to compose through the insensitivity of his overweening father, who through relentlessly pressing him to attain ever more has succeeded in making him attain less. The result of all this is a superbly human story which will bring close to tears anyone who loves music.

Bob Mahnken's "Shared Losses" is another fine story. Its focus is bigotry, personified by the elderly narrator, who, although female, exemplifies the male backwoods American (alas, still extant) whose solution to anything untoward is to shoot it. The story harks back to an earlier era of sf -- it could well have been written by Clifford Simak had Simak's times been a bit more liberated -- but loses nothing thereby. What Mahnken impressively succeeds in doing, even as one weeps for the victims of the bigotry, is make one sympathetic towards the bigot herself; no mean feat. And yet, of course, until bigotry is understood it will never disappear -- a point that is perhaps one of the main subtexts of this book.

Then there's Sean Stewart's "Don't Touch Me". Like Mahnken's, this tale eschews any consideration of the more obscure senses the Deprivers might inadvertently steal; here the focus is on love stolen by the conditions the disease imposes. Several of the stories in this anthology concern the insuperable obstacle that the inability to touch places upon the course of love (generally, and this is a criticism, on the obstacle it presents to sex), but this one triumphs through its attention to character: its narrator is a recently dumped adolescent male; the object of his rebound attraction is a girl who would be fascinating at any other time but is doubly so right now. The integrity of the telling makes this another powerful tale.

But the gem of the entire anthology is Dean Whitlock's ambitious and unbelievably well achieved "Waiting for the Girl from California". This is a story so good, and so beautifully written, that it sings from the pages. It is so poignant in both its concept and its telling that it makes one ache ... and if I tell you a single thing more about it I will spoil it for you. If this tale goes unrecognized by some award or another then the whole awards system must come under scrutiny. If you bother to read not one other story in the anthology, your fourteen bucks will have been well spent. This is what fiction -- and most especially speculative fiction -- is all about. It is a long time since this reviewer has been so affected by a piece of fiction, all the more remarkable since this one is a mere sixteen pages long.

It would be a credit to Steve Altman and Patrick Merla that they had put together an anthology for the worthy cause of the charities noted above. That they have put together such a fine anthology says more for them.

Review by Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 23 June 2001