Review #24: Red Letter Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jul 4, 2010 in Reviews

Published by: Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2010

Photo by Sarah G. Creative Commons

The Story:

A high school counselor and sometimes basketball coach is tasked each year with consoling the students who don’t receive letters from their future selves on Red Letter Day. She knows first hand the devastating effect of not getting a peek into her future, of not getting the tidbit of advice that will encourage a certain career path, or at the least, warn of a grave mistake to be avoided. She’s spent the last 32 years wondering why her future self hadn’t told her to go straight to pro basketball out of high school, or warned her that she’d blow out her knee in her first college game. She’s the kind of person who’d leave a note for her former self, which leaves her to wonder if she won’t survive to write the note at all.

Her fiftieth birthday is now two weeks away, on which she’ll be able to write her letter to her former self. Time travel laws dictate that there can only be one message that goes back into time, with only one specific event mentioned in the letter. These strict laws insure that major past events aren’t purposefully tampered with, though millions of alternate universes are still created from the contacts, and worse, our futures become something limited by a few words scribbled onto paper.

The Craft:

SPOILERS

Red Letter Day is a great example of putting a human face on the implications of time travel. Politics would play heavily into such an invention, and could easily run amok if not strictly controlled. I really enjoyed the solution of the red letters, which allows everyone to have their hand at time travel, though not directly. This piece was also didn’t leave me with my usual time-travel headache by writing off all of the anomalies as alternate universes spurred off of the original. Seeing how the narrator’s life had been changed by not receiving a letter was touching, and it’s interesting that she fell into a life of counseling others who found themselves in the same situation. She gives a lot of thought to the situation, and even though she’s not angsty about it, we can see how deeply this has affected her, throwing her into a life-long puzzle with no solution.

Though this piece is short, it resonates well beyond the events in the story. A broader technological world exists, hinted at through mentions of interactive technology and nanosurgery. I liked how nonchalantly the science is woven into the fiction, not calling attention to itself, but there. And of course, the story poses the moral implications of time travel, even something so seemingly innocuous as a vaguely worded letter from the future — how it can destroy lives just as easily as it can save them. This story is definitely a fun one to think about, especially with the twist ending. What piece of advice would you send to your eighteen-year-old self, if any? Would it differ if you hadn’t received a note the first time around? 

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