During one of my “looking for something cool to read on the interweb” moments, I stumbled upon a short story called Free-Fall by Graham Templeton from the June 2013, Issue 18 of Clarkesworld Magazine. New writers looking for textbook illustrations of descriptions with reasons and strong examples of how character depth can make a simple story explode with emotion, look no further. When you forget you are reading fiction and begin to share the psychological experience of the characters, the author is doing something right.
Four people find themselves stuck on a space elevator, thirty kilometers above the Earth’s surface. In what turns out to be days instead of hours waiting for rescue, the individuals consider their fate by choosing to either keep waiting for help or don emergency suits and dive to the surface. What that entails is, you “Wait three seconds, pull upper chute, fall three minutes, detach and pull lower chute.” You do all this, starting from thirty kilometers above the Earth’s surface. At $70,000 for a three month’s tour work in space, most readers might miss the individual motivation of the characters (it looks like people will still have debt in the future) if not for the keen observation of the narrator.
In any short story format, character development is often done on the fly and can become neglected in the rush of the low word-count. Not in Freefall. One of the characters is our narrator, a journalist. We don’t learn his name, only that he considers himself the “Piggy” amongst the hierarchically social class of the brilliant scientists he is stranded with since very little is expected from him. He is the proverbial fly-on-the-wall who passes the stressful time by observing the others as a means of “profile under stress.” It is through his eyes we are able to absorb the other characters.
Thanks to Piggy’s delicate examinations, the real story is not the stuck space elevator, but the people in it. Kingsley Pan is a twenty-eight-year-old half-Asian mathematician from Brooklyn. He is the young smart-aleck who thinks he knows everything and wants everybody else to know it too. James Dennett is a twenty-nine-year-old physicist from Texas who is not as confident as Pan, but seems to be more logical in his actions. Well, almost. Lastly is Anna Petrovic, a thirty-one-year-old Hungarian engineer who comes off as socially removed and less readable as her male counterparts.
On the outside, the prose first reminded me of the old Mickey Spillane crime novels. This is not necessarily a bad thing in my ol’-timer opinion. After all, the narrator in those books had to be attentive from the start. It’s the job of an investigator to be observant of their surroundings as they build clues. As a reader, this unique eye is always imperative to the story. But the brilliant diction and continual self evaluation by the narrator in Freefall snaps that gumshoe feeling instantly, and we know then that we are in for a powerful experience.
Clarkesworld Magazine has a knack for finding talented writers, and this is no exception. Free-Fall by Graham Templeton is a thought provoking story with precise character utilization, and a pleasure to stumble upon.