It is an interesting title to an equally interesting story. The possessive construction can mean both “the eye of the needle” or “the eye that belongs to the needle”. In this, the final post in the Aurora Awards Fiction Friday series, I expect the latter definition is the more relevant.
What it’s about
The Needle’s Eye falls somewhere between science fiction and horror. I’m inclined to say that it’s closer to horror, as I only managed to get two pages into this story before the intensity of the imagery forced me to put down my kindle and take a deep cleansing breath.
The story is about two Canadian doctors, Lise and Rideau, who work abroad inoculating people against a super-virus called retinapox. The inoculation process is possibly one of the most terrible trade-offs that a person can imagine. To decrease the chance of picking up retinapox by sixty-eight percent, a person sacrifices vision in one of their eyes. On the day that Lise admits to Rideau that she is pregnant with his child, Rideau accidentally breaches his hazmat suit. As you would expect from a story that says, “Hey, let’s cook up an epidemic that makes the bubonic plague look like the sniffles” Rideau contracts the virus.
Why it works
Remember when I said I couldn’t get through the story in one attempt? That’s why it works. But I suppose if you’ve taken the trouble to read this review I should offer a justification that is a little more substantial than the fact that the Suzanne Church managed to get inside my head, not easy to do, and rattle my cage for ten solid pages, even harder to do.
The key to this story is the presentation of that which we know, or at least that which we can easily conceptualize, as the most horrifying thing out there. Ghosts, zombies, and antediluvian chthonic space monsters are all well and good, but viruses, in this case mutated from biological weapons, strike a fear that hits far closer to home. Echoing the sentiments that I offered in my Contagion review, the question is never “Could it happen?” rather “How bad will it be when it happens?”
Other horror narratives offer a conditional safety to their characters, which a reader can then internalize as a sense of personal security. That is to say if a character/reader stays out of dark rooms and refuses candy from strangers, they will be safe. The Needle’s Eye eschews any such notions. The message therein: this could happen to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. And if the next big plague is anything like Retinapox, we are all in a lot of trouble.
The bio/geopolitical framework in which this story is set offers a lone threadbare safety blanket for readers. Retniapox is very much an “over there” virus. When Lise returns home, the narration comments on how few cases there are within Canada, which I will extend to the Western hemisphere at large. At first I was inclined to call this a weakness in the story, given the ease with which viruses can travel in our globalized world. Yet a healthy Canada within this story invited me to think about the rather draconian immigration measures that the West could enforce, as well as the biopolitical nightmare that would come in its wake, as a means of keeping Retinapox a thing that happens in other countries. To some extent, those things happen right now. If they didn’t Peru’s 2010 outbreak of Bubonic and Pneumonic plague would have been bigger international news.
The most memorable part
When I was in grad school, I did a course on epidemiological history. It was a challenging experience. Yet nothing I read in the primary sources of late renaissance physicians who experimented in viral inoculation, based on two-thousand year old Greek medical treatises, compared to the Retinapox inoculation that Suzanne Church crafted in this story. There’s no way I’ll ever purge my mind of the image of a double pointed needle scraping away at the retinas of countless people willing to trade depth perception for a better set of odds against a virus.
The Bottom Line
The Needle’s Eye is the kind of story that could be successfully visited upon any reader. Some, no doubt, would be scared, perhaps even alienated, by the nature of the text. But I can’t conceive of anyone with any taste in literature turning their nose up to this story. It was originally published in the Chilling Tales Anthology by Edge Publishing. This story, as well as all the others I have reviewed in this series, are available to voting members of the CSFFA.