Letter from the Editor: Prisoners
By Rob Carroll
First Published in Issue 005 of Dark Matter Magazine, September-October 2021
I’m always amazed at how well our issue themes came together despite no theme being preplanned or preannounced prior to open calls for submissions (our Halloween Special Issue exempted, of course). Every issue theme for 2021 happened spontaneously, thanks in small part to some editorial finessing, and in large part to that magical ingredient present in all creative works: serendipity. Because these stars aligned, Issue 002 dealt masterfully with truth, Issue 003 toyed mischievously with recursion, and now Issue 005 shouts bitterly from the cold isolation of its own dark prison cell.
Upon deeper, more pragmatic reflection, it’s not really that surprising that issue themes would self-organize so well by chance. All stories comment in one way or another on the same handful of basic human emotions. The human condition is vast and complex, but not much of it has been left unexplored, and even less of it remains uncodified. Plus, literary critique is really just the art of boxing in what should otherwise be left open to interpretation, so in that regard, the stories themselves are prisoners to my every editorial whim (I’m fighting the urge right now to cackle maniacally as I digress back into the topics of recursion and truth and centralized power—Issue 004’s theme.)
So why imprisonment?
Why the emotion of feeling trapped?
Ever since humanity’s Fall, be it from the theological Eden, or from what psychoanalysis would call “the loss of innocence,” we have been wandering around the desert of the real in desperate search of a truth that we believe exists—either as a universal constant, or as something more ethereal that we can only make for ourselves—and for the most part, we’ve been coming up empty.
But this is our primary job as humans: to be meaning makers. We are the pattern seekers, the tragedy writers, the fools in the rain. And like it or not, this is who we are. No matter what we look like, or where we come from, at some point in our lives, we are all going to face a crisis of fortune (if we haven’t already), and by extension, a crisis of meaning, because at some point in our lives, we are all going to suffer, and at some other point, we’re all going to die.
Viktor Frankl (1905–1997), the famous Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, and the author of the landmark work of nonfiction, Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp to later found what he called “logotherapy,” which is a school of psychotherapy that describes the search for a life-meaning as the central human motivational force. Frankl believed that some people are better able to endure suffering precisely because they find meaning in the suffering, no matter how intense. Therefore, logotherapy (derived from the Greek word logos, which translates as “meaning”) is a therapeutic approach that helps people find personal meaning in life, often times in an attempt to overcome trauma.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of fiction when talking about matters of intense human suffering, so I won’t. But relatively speaking, I do think story has an important role to play in our universal search for meaning. Aren’t trials and catharsis two major pillars of storytelling? Don’t these pillars, when acting in concert, support the dwelling place where our fears, but also our hopes and dreams reside? Doesn’t this duality that seeks to imprison us also free us at the same time? And can we only experience freedom if, simultaneously, we are also inherently unfree?
Fiction does a great job of holding the real in one hand and setting it just far enough aside so as to more freely experience the alternate reality which it has created and now holds confidently in the other, palm open to the sky, the new world sparkling like a jewel in the sun, inhabited only by the dreams of what’s possible. Escapism is not the fun little plaything of genre fiction, shunned by anyone creating “serious” art, nor should the word “escapism” be used to cheapen what is actually quite priceless: the ability to imagine a different world, for better or for worse.
I include “or for worse,” because this is not just about our dreams, after all. Humanity’s nightmares need attention, too—maybe even more than our hopes. According to Frankl, processing our collective terror is not only vital to our collective happiness, but also to our survival. If we constantly expect the world to be a place of joy and happiness, we will crumble at the first sign of adversity, and we will self-destruct at the first sign of defeat.
In this issue of Dark Matter, nine stories explore what it feels like to be a prisoner in some regard or another. “The Liminal Men,” by Thomas Ha, is the tale of a young man bound by familial duty in a world ruled by a powerful and nebulous tyranny. Malena Salazar Maciá’s, “Nothing New Under the Moon,” weeps softly for those subjugated by a colonial power not entirely unlike themselves. “Home Insurance,” by Gideon Marcus, is perhaps the most contemporary and relatable story of the bunch, as it follows a young woman struggling to survive in a future United States. She is free in body, but a prisoner to mounting debt and a rapidly failing economy and climate. Guy McDonnell’s “A Twisted Run” is a wild apocalypse story told by a young boy who quite literally runs to escape from the brutal abuses of a violent society built upon the ash of a paradise lost. “Ride the Snake,” by Claudine Griggs calls upon the spirit of Aldous Huxley (and namechecks him, too) by drawing up a scene in which a grade school class of good young citizens learn a whole new appreciation for their totalitarian masters following a bloody display of propaganda for which the children are left to applaud. Dawn Lloyd’s “The Blue Man,” is like a story from Ray Bradbury’s, The Martian Chronicles, with just as much social commentary, and twice the existential defeat. “Memory Simulation for a Grandmother,” by Vikram Ramakrishnan, explores how even in a police state, being a prisoner to one’s own memories can sometimes be a worse fate. “Callis Praedictionem,” by Renan Bernardo, shows us a man who is prisoner to his own academic hubris and his inability to let go. And finally, “Fall in the Box,” by Bob Ritchie, is the story of a young woman trapped by her fiancé’s misguided desire to turn back the clock following tragedy, despite such power being far beyond his control.
I sincerely hope you find meaning in the stories and features contained within this issue, even if that meaning is merely the satisfying feeling of enjoyment. That kind of meaning is often times the best.
. I say “happened” (past tense) because our fiction lineups for all seven issues were finalized last year, following the close of our open call for stories last October.
© 2021, Rob Carroll