The Methodist minister of a military base on an alien world discovers the alien religion is based on a unique after-death phenomenon. Due to the planet’s strong magnetic field, the aliens develop an electromagnetic imprint during life, and upon death, their “ghost” or “soul” continues to exist and live with its family and friends. The aliens have even developed sensory organs to communicate their deceased loved ones.

When human officer Joe MacDonald is accidentally killed, his ghost appears to the minister, scared and angry. Together with an alien guide, the minister and dead Joe pilgrimage to the north pole, where the magnetic field is weakest, that will allow Joe’s soul to dissipate.

Antonelli creates an compelling alien culture, and, juxtaposed against our human nature, allows the reader to see ourselves as humans through a different lens, which I think is a great hallmark of the scifi genre. He uses sparse language that moves swiftly to tell the story. For me, though, it’s too stark a narrative style.

  • When the minister describes the alien guide “as smart as well as wise”, I can’t see evidence in the text for such a grandiose compliment.
  • When the minister requests a shielded Faraday segway for the pilgrimage, and he’s asked way too many bureaucracy-riddled questions by the Commander, and I don’t realize the humor until the minister returns and is asked about the status of the segway again.
  • As the companions near the pole, the minister “monitored and inspected my Farady segway more than ever,” although he never mentions inspecting the equipment prior.
  • When the minister sees the polar magnetic vortex for the first time, he says, “it looks like the eye of God”. Maybe that’s not so surprising as he’s a minister, but such a profound statement seems unjustified since this is the first time he mentions God.

The most captivating part of the story is when Joe learns that when his soul dissipates, nothing awaits him. He would rather, “be nothing than a ghost on a strange world”. But then, that “he hopes his immortal soul has already reached heaven”. Essentially, we as a species have learned nothing from this alien religion, and we continue to cling to desperate ancient myths. No spiritual crisis occurs — humans are as stubborn and as ethnocentric as ever.

This short story wasn’t written for me, but it’s recommended for Hugo voters, and also for readers who find a mash-up of science and religion intriguing.

“Joe didn’t move. I didn’t know if he was asleep. Do the dead sleep? Can the dead sleep?”