A nugget of New all swaddled in Old, that’s what this story is [pdf link]. Much of the pleasure in “Sublimation Angels” — as in Sanford’s two previous Interzone tales [more pdfs] — comes from the gentle unwinding of a satisfyingly odd setting, in thise case constructed in explicit homage to Leiber’s “A Pail of Air” (1951). Like that story, the narration is straightforward, more transparent even than Leiber (it lacks his folksiness); and, as in that story, the characters live, with very basic technology, on a wandering planet whose atmosphere has frozen. Unlike in that story, a repressive hierarchical society has arisen, based around access to oxygen.
Omare and I were born in the highest level of the cave in as much heat and good air as our expedition could give. While low kids raised their children in the lower cave’s cold, Omare and I never knew this deprivation when we were young. We only knew that our mother and father loved us, and if we climbed down the cave’s spiral tunnels we wore clumsy pails of frozen oxymix around our neck. The insulated pails contained a tiny tick-tock heater, and you cranked them every few minutes to smoke out the extra air needed to live.
What follows is about learning the world, rebelling against it, and becoming master of your own destiny. Heartwarmingly conventional stuff, if perhaps a bit stretched beyond its ideal length. But wait! There’s an ironic twist (arguably revealed very early on). It’s not just Sanford who has (like Karl Schroeder with his Virga) engineered his setting to allow its retro feel, protecting his colonists from the raw tech-dream that is the twenty-first century space opera future: one of the agents in his story has done the same thing.
So much for freedom.
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