The mechanical men in these stories—Industrial Age holdovers, outsiders wanting for relevance and respect, or overwhelmed people who confuse the certainties of one reality with the doubts of another—are cut off in some way from contemporary culture.
Sometimes in these stories, which Randy F. Nelson calls "thought experiments about values in conflict," the characters are like the Native American prison guard in "Escape": Rifkin thinks that atonement is possible even for fugitive killers. Others are less sanguine. In "Breakers," a corporate hitman arrives on a forgettable island off the African coast. His mission: to shut down a hellish, polluting, ship-demolition business. His nemesis: a lawyer, now gone Heart-of-Darkness crazy, who preceded him years earlier for the same purpose. The bottom drops out in other stories, rearranging all reference points to good and bad, true and false. In "Abduction," for instance, a distraught young woman summons a tabloid reporter to a grubby hotel room, where the now-lifeless alien who had invaded her body lies wrapped in a sheet.
Nelson once explained his motivations by alluding to a line in a Gabriel García Márquez story. A crowd of villagers are gazing upon a man, "but even though they were looking at him, there was no room for him in their imagination." "Stories and characters and situations that ask the imagination to accommodate something bigger, further, deeper—that's what I'm after," said Nelson.