The Anomalous Archive, Part X: 'Mars Deep-Crust Mine ZB203-South' by P.A. Baines

[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on June 1, 2010.]

"Mars Deep-Crust Mine ZB203-South," 1st in Issue 4 of The Cross and the Cosmos

Here we have the most explicitly evangelistic short story yet published in The Cross and the Cosmos. "Mars Deep-Crust Mine ZB203-South" by P.A. Baines presents a picture of the hopelessness of life and eternity without God. An interesting quality about this story is that it could be said to belong to two genres. It does not have characters of two genres in its setting (for instance, elves in space), nor is it intermediate between two genres. I say that it belongs to two genres because the setting and the means of storytelling are typical of two different genres. The author classified his work as Christian speculative/horror, probably based on his technique and plot devices. Such a classification fits (although I don't think the tone of the writing is typical of horror), but the setting is obviously a fairly common form of science fiction.

There may be analogies in the sci-fi setting to the overriding theme of the story. At the very least, the horrific severity of the Martian mine named in the title parallels the vision that the end of the story presents. It's possible, but not certain, that the mine symbolizes the world, or our short span of life. Later on, a contrast is implied between exiting the mine to the safety of the surface, and exiting it by a different path. At least one place in the narration recalls the extreme transience of human cultures and cultural achievements. The science fiction elements of the setting are nothing particularly new, but they are used with enough creativity to be interesting in their own right, especially considering that speculation about the technologies of the future was hardly a goal of the author for this story.

Characterization is fundamental to the story's technique, although I wouldn't call characterization the primary focus. Most of the story is told from the perspective of a very nondescript third-person-narrator. The protagonist is basic in every way, with few opinions and no definite beliefs. However, this character's lack of beliefs is entirely the point. The character is truly a universal Everyman, and it must have taken great care and skill to make him come across as such. The other characters, however, are more to be concerned about.

The story reminds me a little of the Canterbury Tales of classic literature, in that it takes the measure of a group of individuals through the eyes of a discerning Everyman figure. In "Mars Deep-Crust Mine ZB203-South," three supporting characters serve as archetypes of people with three different kinds of belief systems. There is the religious person, who for all his beliefs has no real faith to hold on to. Then there is the hostile skeptic. Finally, there is the faithful Christian, who holds up under any pressure due to his faith in God. Unfortunately, I don't feel that these three important characters are very well portrayed. Two of them at least have some personality. But the Christian character almost comes off as non-emotional and uncompassionate in the author's attempt to show (and "tell") how he acts with calmness and peace in the face of peril, which was clearly not the intent.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of this story is its writing. The author uses a romantic style that seems almost Victorian, even if it's not nearly so verbose as the prose of the nineteenth century. The horror elements are shown somewhat remotely, so that the reader is not too intimately involved with the suffering character. In fact, the tone of the writing is tragic, expressing a sense of sorrow apart from any level of sorrow the individual characters may posses. In at least one place, a deliberate break is made with the third-person narrator to show a scene from omniscient POV. This scene could have been written in third-person limited POV at least as well, but then it would emphasize character above the theme that the author was probably trying to establish. The prose sort of "zooms out" to reveal the universal application with poetic and romantic language. This technique raises the question of which character the thoughts injected into the narrative belong to. The answer must be that they are the author's own commentary. On the whole, I think the omniscient POV was used skilfully and artistically for a specific purpose in this story, but I'm not entirely convinced that the ending scene couldn't have been done better approach from a different angle, using one or more characters' limited POV. It would be impossible to judge for sure without comparing an alternate story re-written in such a style.

As mentioned above, the story is explicitly evangelistic. However, any accusations of preachiness are unfounded. The story does not contain a conversion, and it doesn't lead up to a blatant presentation of the Gospel, along with the "Sinner's Prayer." What I mean by calling it "explicitly evangelistic" is simply that it directly deals with the reality of salvation or damnation, without making use of a level of symbolism between the literal story and the apparent meaning. Even though the story is set in the future, the science fiction world does not contain symbolic elements of our own spiritual reality. Eternity is just the same for the characters in this story as it is for us. Of course, this is not to say that there is no symbolism at all; I believe that there is at least a measure of analogy, as I noted in the second paragraph of this critique. The purpose of the setting is not to establish the author's moral by implied comparison, since the theme is treated just the same as if the story were set in the present world. Perhaps the purpose of "Mars Deep-Crust Mine ZB203-South" could be best expressed as a romantic exhortation for the reader to avoid the great tragedy of unbelief.


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