The Last Letter by Fiona Lehn is the thirty-first installment in Aqueduct Press's ongoing Conversation Pieces series. The books in this series are intended to provide inspiration for conversations about feminism in science fiction. That kind of introduction makes The Last Letter sound dull, which isn't fair to this touching and thought provoking book.
Two stories form the backbone of The Last Letter. The science fictional story teeters on the edge of outright horror. Our hero, Peta, comes to an inhabited island with the grand goal of restoring balance to the local ecosystem. The island's webworms have gotten out of control and threaten to devour the entire forest. This part is presented as the product of a natural system spinning out of control. The locals are up in arms, both about what the webworms are doing to their forest and against the perceived arrogance of the woman who has been sent to get rid of the worms.
While the rational environmentalist with a plan versus ignorant locals who just want to spray poison on everything is a scenario that can happen, it is also a stereotype certain to offend some readers. The irrational (and often anti-rational) behavior of the islanders is not as plausible as it needs to be at first. Later on, a more sinister explanation is suggested, but it's unclear whether it is supposed to explain all of the opposition Peta faces on the island.
Ecology and psychology are the sciences featured in this work of science fiction. Lehn does a fine job of capturing how horrible webworms are, without projecting evil or any other anthropomorphic trait onto them the way she might have if this was a horror novel. The bugs are following their own lifecycle, and Peta believes that it is only the influence of humans that makes the worms a problem. However, even the most stalwart ecologist is susceptible to the visceral ickiness of giant caterpillars. This is yet another book that the bug-phobic should avoid.
Despite the science fiction label, The Last Letter treats magic spells cast by witches like real things that work in the real world. I enjoy fantasy, but as a reader who had been promised a science fiction story, I found the supernatural elements irritating. I'm sure I'm not alone, though I'm aware that there are people who believe that this mix of magic and science is an accurate description of the world we live in. The Last Letter agrees with them.
While the story that interested me most was the story about the bugs, The Last Letter is also, and most importantly, a love letter. It comprises the last words exchanged between Peta and the old German man she meets while battling the webworms. This is the emotional heart of the book. Lehn draws Peta's love affair with such intelligence and skill that I was utterly enthralled. It isn't an unusual love story—two married people, far from their spouses, find themselves attracted to one another. Readers who know the words can sing along with it. If not for Lehn's skill with language, this second plot would be tedious. Instead, it's a bittersweet, mundane counterpoint to the horror and insanity surrounding the webworm infestation.
I couldn't convince you to leave me, and so you cared for me until the swelling and dizziness retreated. You must have slept on the bed beside me, for your long legs would have hung off my short couch, and no one over the age of 35 could survive a night on that floor without at least a foam mat. Maybe you slept standing up like an Old World sunbather, or hanging from the ceiling like a bat. All I know is, every time I awoke, you were there, your same intense gaze, gentle voice, prodding soup spoon.
I wish more attention had been paid to the secondary characters. They tend to travel in mobs and are only just becoming fully fleshed people when the book ends. Partially this is due to the limitations of the epistolary form, and partially by the lack of space in a novella for digressions. Peta is the one writing the letter. Her focus is, first, on her mission to turn back the worms; second, on her love for Helmut; and only third, and distantly, on the other people around her.
I can imagine finding this book on a college curriculum. I'm sure there are wonderful parallels to be drawn between the life stages of the webworms and the transformation that Peta and her lover undergo. Peta and Helmut's arguments about the right way to love might inspire some debate as well. As a work of entertaining science fiction, it falls a little flat. I wouldn't recommend it to the casual science fiction reader, but anyone who is looking for something a little bit different and a little bit deeper could do worse than The Last Letter.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.
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