My continuing search for short stories to read between full-size books continues, and this time I’m not writing about stories I’ve read online, but about a few I found in an anthology, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW SF – 23 (edited by Gardner Dozois): the authors’ names I saw on the table of contents for this one were enough to pique my curiosity, either because I already read them in the past, or because they were writers I was eager to sample. As it often happens with anthologies, there were good stories, so-and-so stories and works that did not “speak” to me at all, and I’m sorry to report that the overall impression was not a very encouraging one, despite the presence of many talented authors in the list.
Still, there were a few stories that did reach out and leave a lasting impression, and the one I’ve decided to showcase this week is one of them.
SEVENTH FALL is a riveting tale of a post-apocalyptic Earth, one that was torn by a devastating meteor impact, while the survivors struggle on through the following lesser impacts. As civilization crumbles and the new generations grow with no notion of the world before the tragedy, the loss of human arts is the most tragic: the protagonist, Varner, is a sort of traveling performer, entertaining the members of the various communities he meets on his journeys with his memory of stories he learned from his father.
Over the years, he’s been focused on a peculiar mission, finding a whole copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play he used to act in with his father’s troupe, and one he possesses only in incomplete form. Books are indeed a rare commodity in this torn world, not only because the various Falls (so the meteor impacts have been named) and their consequences, but also because of the Brotherhood of the Book, a sect of religious fanatics bent on burning every book in existence – and their owners too, if they don’t surrender the precious volumes.
It’s a sad, poignant story – and for a book lover like me also a terrifying one, because the thought of the wanton destruction of humanity’s literature is one that chills me to the bone – but there is a small ray of light at the end, a hint of defiance in the face of natural and man-made disasters that more than compensates for the overall sadness.