John Dermot Woods’s latest project is a chapbook-length story (somewhere between a short story and a novella, I’d say) called Always Blue, and it’s fresh out from Radix Media. It’s the first in a series of sci-fi chapbooks from Radix, who made the transition from printer to printer/publisher last year, which is awesome. I think more printers should do this; it shows what they’re capable of, what they’re into. Sometimes it seems like printers are in a contest to see who can be the most faceless, but not Radix, who definitely seems to have a good perspective on the world. Everything they print includes the line, “All work was done in-house with union labor.”
Always Blue isn’t easy to summarize, despite its relative brevity and straightforward plot. The hitch is that this particular sci-fi universe accommodates many interesting diversions. For example, the main character, Schultz, chews his smokes—which at first I thought was a setting-appropriate colloquialism, but then he basically chain-chews them throughout the story. I think they literally chew cigarettes instead of smoking them because there’s no breeze. That’s the starting point for the story; the weather has caused so much havoc that the people in this new world live on an island that’s protected by something called “Wind Tuning.”
The Wind Tuning solution was developed by Schultz, who after a career spent engineering the wall-ish thing has been appointed Distinguished Instructor of Draft Engineering at the Academy. And that’s where the trouble begins. His nemesis is a middling student, Stacey Graham, who’s convinced he’s discriminating against her because he feels threatened by her, since she’s supposedly found a defect in the Windwall. As soon as she mentions this defect to him, Schultz begins to admit to himself that maybe he is, in fact, feeling a slight draft from time to time. He vaguely wonders what to do.
Schultz’s love interest is an archivist named Midori Tanaka, whom he only knows a little, though they hooked up once. Because Midori runs the records department, she begins interacting with Stacey, who has requested information on anyone who worked on the Windwall in the past. Schultz worries about their interaction, of course, as he doesn’t want to lose his cushy job (and the administration at the Academy has announced some looming cutbacks). Midori, meanwhile, wouldn’t normally engage with someone as perceptibly dimwitted as Stacey, but she’s been compelled by the Dean of Faculty.
Things end tragically for Stacey (maybe), after a gust of wind blows her from the roof of a campus building while she’s demonstrating how the wind is breaking through the wall. It’s intentionally left unclear what happens to her—instead, the story shifts to the Academy’s administrators, who have either conspired to cause the breakdown of the Windwall, or seem criminally disinterested in it. It’s a meaningful indictment of the way institutions are oblivious to environmental crises even while trying to solve them.
Always Blue is effective for showing how we—individuals as well as our institutions—prioritize self interest and the status quo at great peril. But never preachy, the chapbook is a, er, breeze to read because of the way John offers his take on science fiction tropes. Plus, the chapbook is beautifully made, with a luxurious letterpressed cover, light blue endpapers, sharp interior design, and a handful of John’s illustrations. My copy was delivered along with a handmade poster promoting the series, which is just what I needed for my office wall:
To read more about the production, go behind the scenes at Radix Media.