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New Yorker Fiction Review: "This is an Alert" by Thomas Pierce

Issue: March 30, 2015

Story: "This is an Alert" by Thomas Pierce

Rating: $/Meh

Review: I always love to see another young gun getting some acreage in The New Yorker. Thomas Pierce, author of the short story collection Hall of Small Mammals, is a product of the University of Virginia MFA program, a veteran of NPR, and his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and Best American Non-Required Reading, among other places.

I also always love read to some good spec fiction; stories set in a somewhat plausible and usually unpleasant near-future. "This is an Alert" tells the story of an afternoon in the life of a family in what could easily be the year 2020 or so, a year in which country-less drones wage war in the skies miles above and, down on earth, people are slaves to an electronic alert system admonishing them to put on their gas masks every few minutes to avoid being gassed by drones fighting overhead. They dutifully obey the alert system...until they don't. But in the end they find out it doesn't even matter; they're on their own.

On the surface, it's a pretty simple "day in the life" type story with all the gimmicky little made-up futuristic details about "snake" drones and "headsocks" and other such things that make spec fiction so fun to read. Digging a little deeper, however, Pierce deals with -- or at least attempts to deal with -- the true nature of Faith, a heavy topic to tackle in three or four thousand words but he makes a decent attempt. The debate, however, is not in the sentences and paragraphs of "This is an Alert"; instead it's a debate the reader has to wage in her own head and in her own time.

Mixed rating here, simply because the story took so long to get interesting. Once we're introduced to
the skewed reality, once the "jig" is up and we've been let in on the conceit, it's best to move the story along as quickly as possible, and in my opinion Pierce waited a little too long to get to that. And by the time the "bomb" gets dropped in this story, it's already too close to the end. The center of gravity should have come earlier, and if it weren't for the fact I had to write about it, I may not have forced myself to push through to the good stuff.

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