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Ashley Delving’s latest concerns children but is not necessarily for children, a parable about human cruelty and how removing it can leave a void to be filled with something worse. Cruelty always finds a way; or we are what we are, and evil is as much a part of our dna as love.
Broadly speaking, our childhoods make up only an eighth of our lifespan but it’s also where our adult personalities and even future lives are shaped. It’s when some of our fondest memories are made.
It is also the time when we are at our most open minded, most empathetic, accepting and forgiving. In short, when we are at our best.
So it makes sense that, if our planet was observed by an alien species, children would be seen as the more worthy inhabitants and adults as the lesser. After all, adults pollute, exploit and desecrate their environment; wage war against, suppress, subjugate and decimate each other. Seeing just how frail and fleeting life is, these observers might conclude that for both humans and nature to flourish the environment must come first. What good would it do to save a planet’s indigenous life if there were no planet for it to inhabit?
Enter the alien engineers. Their ship passes over the unnamed world like a tornado leaving infrastructure in place but removing all the machines of war and tools of destruction. Also anyone over the age of 10. While remaining mostly unseen, benevolent robots provide medical and general assistance and maintain a minimal parental role of rule enforcement.
But children can be very curious about their surroundings and constantly challenge authority. Despite all the parades, parties, games, toys, and amusement parks, eventually some tough questions are asked, questions the robotic caretakers are not programmed to answer. Questions which lead the bolder children to answer on their own terms.
Delving created some controversy with her second novel, Quite Boggy, and its stark depictions of what some critics labeled the author’s “post-Chavez reaction” to social media’s apparent usurpation, but, not to be softened by any harsh reception, her third effort was twice as divisive. Despite strong sales, the author found herself at a crossroads as her audience seemed more interested in “buzz” than in exploration, and so decided to try her hand at science fiction. This decision was obviously not welcomed by her publishers and Delving found herself contractually bound to producing one more novel for them before she could do anything as risky as scifi. Ironically, the last release for Newcomb Books, Found In The Trash, would be her biggest seller to date, assuring her of an easy transition to a new deal.
Except it wasn’t. The author had a health scare just after inking a contract with Biblically Disproportionate Books which delayed her debut for the newly formed publishing house. She then found herself the victim of a decidedly creepy identity theft/stalking which tied her up in the legal system for over two years but, like any talented writer, she turned those unfortunate events into a hugely successful work of fiction.
Phantom Vortex retains some of the detached, clinical violence of that novel but it’s even more effective here due to its unexpectedness. Minus their adult caregivers/example setters, these seemingly innocent children slip into all too familiar archetypes of tormentor and tormented, casting their benevolent alien “saviors” as the oppressive enemy. Even the precious natural environmental balance the aliens tried to preserve is thrown into turmoil as the children, left to design their brave new world, take stock of what they have and what they want. If one child had a dog, the next wants one too. Ditto your bike or your little sister.
Like all Delving’s novels, it’s paced well with tightly drawn characters, but like all her works it suffers during the biggest action scenes, although this one is decidedly brisker than her previous attempts. Clearly she’s getting more comfortable with the genre, so perhaps her next foray into science fiction won’t sputter around the nuts and bolts. Here, though, there are no serious missteps to distract from what is a fascinating tale that winds smoothly toward an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. It has its roots in older classics like The Twilight Zone and Ray Bradbury, or at least how this fan of both found it, and that’s a good thing. When the genre strives too hard to be cutting edge it loses what made it so powerful: familiar scenarios subverted and made alien to magnify the message, making us wonder if this world of ours truly has no more surprises left in it.