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Stephen L. Antczak and James C Bassett's "Eschersketch" has a brilliant premise and a lot of problems. The premise is this: protagonist Evan is in charge of a fabrication machine, which can make physical reproductions of most anything imaginable. Aiming both to test the machine to its limit and to impress co-worker Janey, Evan tests the machine to its limit by having it recreate the impossible realities of M.C. Escher - building up to a life-sized version of Escher's Relativity.

I love this concept - it's a perfectly plausible use of SF-nal technology, yet the moment Evan starts toying with Escher's designs, the unspoken promise is loud and clear: Evan is going to make the impossible real. The anticipation is tremendous; the reader won't rest until he sees the result.

But the rest of the story, alas, does a poor job of supporting this enthusiasm. Much of the story's attention is devoted to Evan's social awkwardness and to his infatuation with his co-worker; Evan is presented as an utterly pathetic individual, disliked by all - and justly so. I'm sure this was, to a large extent, the authors' intention, but lacking any redeeming features, Evan's resentful internal monologues becomes simply tiresome to wade through. It certainly doesn't encourage me to feel invested in his romantic feelings towards Janey:
He decided that he desperately needed to get rich like Roberto. Then he could have the life his boss had, with the ThinkSmart and the hot young trophy wife — maybe even a passionate affair on the side with a woman like Janey. Just like Roberto.

Actually, that was unfair — Evan had no proof other than his own jealousy that there was anything going on between Janey and Roberto.

Yeah, there's the start of a nice, healthy relationship. Evan clearly isn't meant to come across as a particularly nice guy, but somehow his obsessive fascination with Janey seems intended to sustain and propel forward a 50-page story. Making matters worse, we get a few jaunts into Janey's point of view, which portray her to be every bit as superficial as Evan's interest in her - she doesn't seem to have any life or interests beyond assessing the sexual and romantic potential of the story's various cast members.

A poor romance/drama arc might have been only a minor ding against the story; unfortunately, "Eschersketch" plays more to its weaknesses than to its strengths. There are long swathes of the story where Evan's pestering of Janey is the only thing going on; these may stretch the sense of anticipation beyond the point of genuine interest. Most disappointing is the ultimate payoff - when Evan does step into the much-awaited Escher-world, the result is an absurd and arbitrary conclusion which comes out of nowhere and gives little in the way of satisfaction.

In fairness, I think what Antczak and Bassett were attempting was less an SF yarn about intriguing applications of fantastic technology, and more of a classic horror structure: the Escher-world as a dark fate that lurks ominously in the wings until the big reveal. If I'd enjoyed the character arc more, this structure might have worked - it certainly does have that sense of ever-present dread, and something momentous about to happen, and when will he go in there already... that typifies that type of story. And I won't reveal the ending, but I will say it would certainly fit the structure. Nonetheless, I can't quite buy this as a horror story, simply because for so much of the story, there's no actual sense of threat - quite the opposite, many details are provided that make the attempt seem perfectly safe and unlikely to produce anything remarkable. And again, a horror story relies on a measure of sympathy with the protagonist; for me, at least, "Eschersketch" didn't have that.

It's clever; it's fresh; it draws the reader in right from the start. Alas, it doesn't carry him through to the finish.