Caroline M. Yoachim. Stone Wall Truth. (Asimovs February 2010).

I read this on the train up to London, en route to see ‘The War Horse’ at the National Theatre on Drury Lane.

Yoachim takes a step up from the small presses with a first story in Asimovs, and its a confident debut. The story is set in Africa some time hence, with the rule of the gun very much in place, with tribal warlords holding sway as long as they hold the upper hand. However, there has been left behind a strange alien artefact, which has been utilised as a form of punishment and torture – using the alien tech, individuals can be crucified on this wall, flayed open, and have their darkest secrets shown to those watching. After the darkness has been seen, they can be stitched back together, and re-animated, brought back to life. It is through the eyes of one who is employed to carry out these tasks that the story is seen, starting with her putting back together and old female friend of hers. But when there is a change of warlord, and she has to carry out her duties on someone whose guilt she is not convinced (a somewhat arbitrary event to move the plot along), she finds herself pinned to the wall and having to face the truth about the darkness within herself. In doing so she also gets a tantalising glimpse of those who have gone before her, and of the alien, very alien, race who used the wall for quite different purposes. Low on tech, high on humanity, an excellent Asimovs debut.

I didn’t read much on the journey back home, as my mind was still racing from seeing the play. It was an interesting contrast to seeing Avatar in 3D a month or two back. I enjoyed that move as a spectacle, felt that the flying scenes were very redolent of some Roger Dean album covers from the 70s, but it was very much a masterpiece of digital creativity over storytelling. The War Horse was a mind-boggling technical achievement, but with emotional power. Over here in Britain, for people over a certain age, the First World War/Great War has very strong emotional significance, so a play against that setting is bound to have more impact than a fictional planet and a mineral called ‘unobtanium’.

But even at a technical level, I felt that The War Horse scored ahead of Avatar. The battle scenes in the movie were dramatic, fast moving, and a showcase of just what a skilled artist can do with a powerful computer. But in The War Horse they actually had a cavalry charge into a hail of machine-gun fire, and were able, with the willing suspension of disbelief, to have you believe that the charge was brought to a shuddering halt, and that dead cavalrymen were flying back off their mounts. A lumbering tank also made a rumbling appearance, and there were also lovely little touches, such as a farmyard goose (pushed around on the end of a stick by a member of the cast), and flying birds and carrion-gobbling crows. But the stars of the show were of course the horses – go to YouTube and search for The War Horse. And if you’re in London, get a ticket. I had thought seeing The Dark Knight sketch re-enacted in Spamalot, right down to the total dismemberment of the knight, was a highpoint of theatrical chutzpah, but not any more!

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