“Dead Horse Point”
Both Locus’ short-fiction reviewers covered the issue:
After this high-conceptual zest [“Hormiga Canyon” by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling] most of the rest of the stories seem conventional, even tired. Fortunately, “Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory has a shocking surprise at its close, suggesting both the emptiness of notions of free will and the merciless logic that must follow; and Jack Skillingstead bursts a chilling solipsisitic buble quite memorably in “Thank You, Mr. Whiskers,” a tale of an old woman’s understandable fantasy of omnipotence and its equally necessary implosion. Provocative philosophical SF redeems an ambient mediocrity.”
The most interesting story in Asimov’s for August is “Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory. Gregory is again dealing with the mysteries of brain functioning, surely one of the most fruitful areas for speculation nowadays. Here a middle-aged woman, Venya, gets a message from her long ago lover, Julia. Julia is, as she has been for decades, under the care of her brother Kyle. Julia is a brilliant physicist, but her discoveries seem to come as a result of periods of intense concentration that can last for hours or more and that appear to outsiders as trances. The story doesn’t quite work—mainly because we don’t really get a good glimpse inside Julia’s mind. Instead, we learn Venya’s history with Julia, and Kyle’s and a question is asked about responsibility. It’s good work, worth reading, but seems to hint at the sort of transcendent (and to be fair, perhaps false) message that SF sometimes aspires to, without getting there.”
[Okay, one shouldn’t argue with critics, but I think Rich missed the boat here. The story is a critique of the search for transcendence that Rich is looking for. All the characters are focused on the brilliant genius and her quest for a final explanation of quantum mechanics (which describes the plot of perhaps 902 science ficiton short stories), when their focus should be on the more human equation, and it’s this mistake that causes the tragedy at the end. It’s only because most of the readers make the same mistake (as I intended, ’cause lying to, misleading, and otherwise jerking around the reader is the writer’s job, right?) that the ending seems shocking.]
5/5 stars. In a review of Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Vol. 2, SF Signal rated it one of the top 5 stories. Their review of the story finishes with this:
“Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory revolves around a woman named Julia who mentally disappears at ever-increasing lengths. She can do ordinary things like eat, walk and the other minutia of everyday life, but her mind is clearly elsewhere. (The cause is speculated as a petite mal seizure or a mild autism.) When Julia’s faculties return, she copiously records the extensive results of what was occupying her mind, usually some mathematical or other scientific problem. This story begins twenty-three years after Venya has gone about her own life and left Julia in the care of her brother, Kyle. Venya receives a plea of help from Julia in a rare lucid moment and sets out to follow through on a promise made long ago.
The wonder of this story is not in its science fictional content, which is minimal and only incidental to the story, but rather in how the author has crafted an entrancing piece of fiction that draws the reader towards the selfless characters while he creates an impending error [sic: I think he meant “air”] of dread and import as the story progresses. That wonder is kicked up a notch when you realize the nature of promises made. Powerful, emotional stuff.
Niall Harrison, Torque Control
Torque Control is the blog of the editorial staff of Vector, the the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. Niall Harrison delivers a long, insightful review of the entire volume of stories. He talks about looking for stories that follow in the same tradition as Ted Chiang and Greg Egan, and then says this:
One example is Daryl Gregory’s marvelous, economical “Dead Horse Point”. In its exploration of the psychological consequences of the pursuit of intellectual satisfaction it echoes “Glory”, not to mention some of Egan’s earlier stories, although there’s no evidence of Egan’s sometimes-clinical approach. (Strahan identifies a Tiptree influence, which I can see in the outdoorsy setting, although the story itself is gentler than any Tiptree I’ve read.) In some ways, it’s little more than a character vignette: a woman receives a call from her girlfriend of years earlier, and travels to visit her and her brother; there is some reminiscing about old times, and some discussion of the present; and then a turning point is reached. The sfnal elements, too, are minimal: the girlfriend, Julia, suffers from a psychological abnormality that, so far as I know, doesn’t exist, but which is characterised as “the opposite of attention deficit disorder”, meaning that she has a tendency to disappear into fugue states for periods of time ranging between hours or months, focused utterly on solving whatever problem has snagged her attention. The current problem, which may be drawing Julia so deep into a fugue that she will never return, is a new interpretation of quantum mechanics, the implications of which — and the ways in which those implications are refracted by the actions of the trio — echo not just Egan, but also “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”. The balance in “Dead Horse Point”, though, is tilted more towards heart than head, which is enough to ensure that the story is in the end nothing but itself.
Kimberly Lundstrom, Tangent Online
Daryl Gregory also explores some weighty matters with the story of a brilliant woman whose scientific revelations come at the expense of a normal life. Since she was a young woman, Julia has periodically lapsed into catatonic-like trances while her mind mulls the nature of the universe and tests current theories on the subject. On awakening from these trances, she produces academic papers and books, with the editorial help of her brother, who also cares for her in her unusual state. But Julia has made a frantic call to Venya, her friend and once lover, asking her to come “before it’s too late.” Venya believes she knows the reason for this call, but finds that Julia isn’t the only one who feels trapped at “Dead Horse Point.” Gregory draws affecting characters and employs an apt metaphor of trapped animals in this poignant tale of love and desperation.
Gregory manages to raise the stakes, in a story which has a feel of a Tiptree about it. It’s short, but effective, and well-handled to take the reader through an intriguing situation as all is revealed. A women is called out of the blue by an old-friend with whom she pretty much lost contact. It turns out that said friend is in the process of pretty much losing contact with he world, as she has continued to withdraw into her own autistic world where her brain processes complex mathematical concents, whilst she is virtually dead to the world. Having given up her role in supporting her ex-university flatmate (and lover), the woman visits to find the brother pretty much at the end of his tether.