“Harbingers” by Severna Park: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“Harbingers” is a short story by Severna Park that was published on Event Horizon in February 1999.

Good to get that out of the way.  Now, onto the review!

The Story: Fear And Loathing In Tanzania

Our protagonists are AnnMarie and Navarie, two American women serving in the Youth Corps who are about to get deported in the middle of a crisis between the Tanzanian government and the New African Congress guerrilla fighters.  An expedition outside the city of Dar es Salaam leads them to the discovery of several strange pods that severely affect the two women just by their touch.  Things get stranger when guerrilla warfare breaks out in the city and the Americans are forced to rely on the help of a strange woman named Renata, who has a connection to the pods–known as “Grubs”–that somehow involves a connection to cybernetics and time travel.

The Cast: Three Women Caught In The Middle Of A War

AnnMarie is the protagonist for most of the story, being given a first-person narrative when interacting with Navarie and Renata.  We know little about her past other than that’s she a lesbian, which colors her friendship with the heterosexual Navarie and adds an unusual dimension to her connection with Renata.  As for Renata herself, we never get her perspective except through dialogue and actions, which are just as inscrutable at times.  She goes from being just another bureaucrat to an enigmatic ally and time traveler over the course of the story, letting the Grubs do more of the talking for her.

The Setting: Walk Right Into East Africa (And Then Run Like Hell)

Severna Park deserves a lot of credit for capturing the atmosphere of Tanzania, both in the city of Dar es Salaam and the rugged natural terrain of such sites as the Ngorongoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge, where first contact with the Grubs takes place.  As I read through this story, I felt like I was passing through the Serengeti or dodging snipers in the slums of Dar.  Severna Park captures both the natural beauty and geopolitical instability of Africa in this story about alien contact and cybernetic connections.

Final Verdict: Weird Wild Stuff

To borrow a phrase from this story, it’s an example of “weird realism,” taking a realistic plight of Youth Corps volunteers in the middle of an African war zone and weaving a sci-fi storyline into it.  Much like the experience I had with “Pansolapia,” the story of “Harbingers” is one that deserves a good rereading to fully appreciate what’s happening, but again, it’s so evocative and interesting to make for a worthwhile read.

Bibliography: Park, Severna.  “Harbingers.”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.

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