Weeding Womb

Kinds of Strangers

Kinds of Strangers by Sarah Zettel. This is a really nice story about keeping one's sanity (or not) in the face of death.

The rundown: NASA sends a shuttle out to the asteroid belt. Being NASA, they included backups of everything, in case of failure. Everything, that is, except for the one big bulky engine part that couldn't be duplicated. But that part was 'foolproof' and completely immune to failure.

And the Titanic was unsinkable. Murphy's Law kicks in and hitherto ignored asteroid dust ruins said unique component.

So, the seven crewpeople are stranded in space, with just normal rockets that don't have a tenth of the fuel they'd need to get back to Earth within the next 100 years. Of course, Earth is mounting a rescue attempt, but it should get there several weeks after the supplies give out.

After that lovely news, the crewmembers have been losing faith, committing suicide one by one (seems they feel a 100% sure quick death is preferable to a 99.99% chance of a slow one).

We join the story as the third corpse is found, by the main character - who is considering becoming number four.

This is an interesting story, as it's written in what I call 'third person inscient'. I know that's the wrong word (inscient means 'stupid' - 'nescient' might be a better word), but I like it. Here's a quick rundown on my terminology:

First person - the main character is telling you the story, as seen through their own eyes, after the fact. Any 'scene jumping' is the person recalling something they were told later. Uses 'I did this' kind of phrasing.

Third person omniscient - a third party is telling you the story. Their perception is godlike, able to tell you what any of the characters are doing/thinking. The scene jumps from one person to another as needed. 'He did this' kind of phrasing.

Third person inscient - I think the correct word is 'limited'. I'm using inscient since it's the natural counterpart to omniscient (like impotent/omnipotent are counterparts). This is the compromise between the two styles above. You're hearing it from a third party, but the third party only follows the main character. Everyone else's thoughts and actions are sealed off. What you'd expect if someone read a first person story then told you about it later. All the 'I did this' phrasing is replaced with 'He/she did this', but it's still basically first person. Very handy if the author hates first person writing (as I do - I can't write like that to save my life) but wants to hide the thoughts of others.

Back on topic. The story is third person inscient, and follows one of the crewwomen around as the remaining crewmembers ponder their fate. As they do, a close encounter of the third kind occurs - aliens broadcast a message stating that they could hitch a ride home on a comet. One of the crewmen confronts the main character (Margot Rusch) about it, claiming it's one of the other two faking an alien broadcast, trying to stop more suicides by providing false hope. He later attempts suicide after Margot refuses to completely believe his ranting and (in anger) tells him to kill himself if he's so sure he's going to die anyway - a statement she quickly regrets making.

So now we have four people, one who is almost dead after his suicide attempt. The three active crew members go on with trying to harness a comet that's heading towards Earth. Until Margot's fellow crew members begin to go insane. They still function, but Margot thinks they're 'strangers' - like their will has been broken and someone else is living behind their eyes now.

Here comes the fun part. Since we're seeing everything through Margot's eyes, we're left with a major problem. Is (as she thinks) she sane while the other two are going mad; are they sane while she is going mad; or are they all insane and she's too crazy to diagnose her own condition?

The ending is nice and suspenseful, as someone may or may not go completely off the deep end and try to kill someone else, and as it becomes clear who's mad and who (if anyone) isn't.


The Archon

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