Story A Day Review #2: The Sounds Of Old Earth, by Matthew Kressel

The Sounds of Old Earth, by Matthew Kressel

Earth has grown quiet since everyone’s shipped off to the new one. I walk New Paltz’s empty streets with an ox-mask tight about my face. An acidic rain mists my body, and a thick fog obscures the vac-sealed storefronts. Last week they hauled the Pyramids of Giza to New Earth. The week before, Stonehenge. The week before that, Versailles and a good chunk of the Great Wall. But the minor landmarks are too expensive to move, the NEU says, and so New Paltz’s Huguenot Street, seven centuries old, will remain here, to be sliced to pieces in a few months when the planetary lasers begin to cut the Earth apart.

I pump nano into my bloodstream to alleviate my creeping osteoarthritis and nod to a few fellow holdouts. We take our strolls through these dusty streets at ten every morning, our little act of rebellion against the mandatory evacuation orders. I wave hello to Marta, ninety-six, in her stylishly pink ox-mask. I shake hands with Dr. Wu, who performed the op to insert my cranial when I was a boy. I smile at Cordelia, one hundred and thirty-three, as she trots by on her quad servo-legs. All of us have lived in New Paltz our entire lives and all of us plan to die here.

Someone laughs behind me, a sound I haven’t heard in a long time. A group of teenage boys and girls ride ancient turbocycles over the cracked pavement toward me. They skid to a halt and their eager, flushed faces take me in. None wear ox-masks, which is against the law. I like them already….

Here’s a secret: I’m a sucker for any “Last Day” story.  If the home you live in is about to be pulverized by outside forces, and there is nothing you can do to stop it, then you’ve got me… for you have to sell me on all the romance associated with this thing that will soon be lost forever.  And this is the most satisfying kind of “Last Day” story, where the whole Earth is going to be blown up and it’s time to muse upon all of society dying.

Except they’re not.  They’re moving away.  Earth isn’t being destroyed because it’s dead, it’s being destroyed because, well, it’s kind of unsightly.  We have better options.  Mallworlds, for example.  And so what we get is an interesting conflict about what we’d actually lose when we’re going to someplace way shinier.

This is a simple story for its length, and what I like about it is what it does not do.  The first visitor the old man gets does not fall in love with Old Earth.  The old man does not lay down, suicidally, to be cut to ribbons by planetary lasers.  No, the ending is still reasonably “I saw it coming,” but it’s the right kind of seeing it coming in that it’s going in a direction you wanted to head anyway, and lo!  Here it is!

Some of the little bits vexed me on this one, though.  For some reason, this was a very homey and old story – the bones of it could easily have been published in the 1980s – and yet it’s filled with cyberpunkish jargon, particularly the hybrid corporations that have sponsored the satellites.  Yes, I think that Google would sponsor a satellite for people to move to, and I quite like the subtle ways that the new Earth is much more consumer-oriented than the old one.  But when you say “Google-Wang,” in addition to the normal chuckle of “I already do,” I take a side trip off to wonder what sort of corporate forces would have caused them to combine, and then I go off on a tangent.  Yet for me, all the jargon was like chrome sparkles stuck onto a classic 1950s car – not needed and distracting.  Some future-jargon sounds futuristic, and others just sound like, well, chrome sparkles.

No matter.  The people in this tale are likeable, which is what you want in a story about the end of the world, and there’s a low-key drama in that even the yelliest of fights are between folks trying to do good for each other, and it’s a sweet story.  I don’t know if it’ll stick in my mind, say, a year from now, but it was mighty nice going down today.

Four stars out of five.

 

2 Comments

  1. BenjaminJB
    Jan 3, 2013

    Have you ever read William Tenn’s 1953 story, “The Custodian”? I read it in an anthology called Catastrophes (eds. Waugh, Greenberg, Asimov) that I think you would like if you like “Last Day” stories.

    Getting back to Tenn, it’s the story of the last man on Earth, who has elected to stay there through the disaster (sun going supernova, not environmental degradation, oh how our imagination of disaster shifts) because he wants to stay close to our artistic heritage that everyone else left behind. They’re different stories–they end with different revitalizations of their respective old man/holdout; but the thematic elements are so similar. So you’re not just theoretically right when you say that the Kressel story seems old-fashioned–here’s some experimental proof. (Sort of.)

  2. alexander hollins
    Jan 4, 2013

    I actually didn’t see it coming , until the graduation ceremony, but yeah, that was a good ending! Thanks for the review and link.

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