A Stranger from a Foreign Ship by Tom Purdom; a review


I like noir. I tried to do a noir comic about my favorite character Joe Mexico. Urban scum lives and reading about it is exciting. Tom Purdom’s “A Stranger from a Foreign Ship”, appearing in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 edited by Rich Horton (pgs 34-49), is one such story. Purdom’s noir story is also modern fantasy.

Purdom’s protagonist, Gerdon, is a hit-man/hacker. Gerdon’s super power is “the swap” (pg 34). Gerdon approaches his target, sizes them up and then swaps identities with them like a two-way possession. He gets inside their head and instead of two identities existing in the same skull, the target is evicted from their head and imprisoned in Gerdon’s head. Purdom shows “man [Gerdom] leaning against the wall was attracting attention. The woman locked inside the man’s head was reacting to the jolt of the shift–the shock of suddenly finding herself riding in another body, staring out of someone else’s eyes” (pg 35). Gerdon’s target is a woman who he is occupying while she panics, finding herself in someone else’s body. She thrashes about, attracting a crowd.

Gerdon’s swap is criminal. The swap, the assault against his target, Arly, is to hack her memories for information. Purdom explains the hack by stating “You couldn’t search through a brain the way you searched a computer, with key words and logical connections. The links were foggier and less rational. Odors. Emotions. Childhood associations. . . . the images he needed forked from a trail that started with the label on the wallet tucked in the suit she was wearing under her coat” (pg 35). Gerdon hacks Arly and digs through her head, following a trail of associations to discover information he’s been hired to find. Once he finds the information, Gerdon swaps back, leaving Arly’s head, his hack complete.

This ability fits nicely in the fantasy realm because there is no scientific explanation offered in the story. Gerdon explains early that he’s always had this ability and had to spend a lot of time perfecting his skills (pg 35). His target, Arly, eventually figures out what is happening and accuses, “You’re a paranormal” (pg 47). She describes what happens, saying “That’s it right? You get into people’s minds? You did something funny and got into my mind.” Arly works out what happens. The text’s descriptions of the process are not clear as Gerdon nor Arly quite understands what is happening. The narration offers the following explanation:

The Universe was clearly a mysterious place, with wonders [Gerdon’s] fellow humans had barely noticed. Someday, someone might understand his peculiar aberration. When they did, the explanation would probably be just as incomprehensible as a quantum textbook. pg 47

The ineffable, the Universe’s unknown, is the text’s only explicable explanation. This vague explanation makes Purdom’s story fantasy instead of science-fiction.

The explanation is the problem. I think it is superfluous. No one needs to know why Gerdon’s ability works or where it comes from. Speculating an explanation does nothing for the story. It’s not even a distraction. It’s a waste of time.

I’m kinda going to have this problem as well with my comic. No one in my story has super-powers, but a couple of people have abilities that I’m not going to explain. Metal (pictured above) is the prime example. Metal’s secret skill is medicine. He knows how to intuitively apply the best healing technologies quickly and effectively without being a doctor. No one, however, needs to know how he gained those skills. Explanations, sometimes, come across as talking down to the audience and if the explanation has nothing to do with the story or plot, the explanation can be and must be ignored.



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