Science fiction writers like to build elaborate traps for their characters. When they think they have no recourse and no future, where do they find the will to act and what do they do? How a character performs under duress is a quick narrative check of a person’s heroism, their moral worth. When there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose, do we make good choices or bad?
The protagonist of Brent Knowles’ “Sin and Toil” (On Spec #096 – Spring 2014 vol 26 no 1 ) has been trapped for years. Dealt a severe punishment for his part in the destruction of Earth, he is alone in exile on a distant planet where he toils to build a new world for the children of the one he ruined. Genetically modified and sent cargo shipment with which he must build a colony for Earth’s former citizens, he comes to think of his toil as the path to redemption.
The protagonist begins as a cartoonish villain who is difficult to take seriously. In the future, the Earth has been stripped bare and the leaders of the New World Order finally lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of the captains of industry, “the aggressive over-achievers, the compulsive hoarders, the incompetent business school grads incapable of actual work, actual creation.” It is hard to think of a world colonized by bankers and playboys as anything but silly, but Knowles delivers the scenario with a straight face, and the sell eventually works. This is Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch the way it really would have worked out: rather than work together to successfully build a new world, the exiled capitalists refuse to interact with each other any more than they have to, each attempting to build homesteads on their own. The result is a predictable failure.
This is Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch the way it really would have worked out
The protagonist avoids his neighbours as much as anybody. His redemption is a tale he tells himself. He has toiled and therefore changed. He understands now what he did wrong. He’s going to make it better by building a better world. It’s a hard line to buy. Aside from his cagey attitude towards the other exiles, he frames the future in terms of his children. His grandchildren. On Earth, he congratulated himself for caring for his family as well. Has anything changed after his years of work and exile? Because Knowles fast-forwards through the part where the narrator finally builds something for everyone else, the narrator’s case that he is now interested in much beyond his family’s comfort is weakened.
He does not rejoin his family and live free. He has come to a moral position where he believes the right thing to do is to leave them be. New colonists might, truly, be better off with his help and continued toil, but no redemption narrative is complete without self-sacrifice. “I am part of a past best forgotten,” he tells us, which would have worked better as a sacrifice to humanity if he hadn’t also told us a few lines earlier that “I am no longer human. I am something else, an abomination like the planet my family has finally abandoned.”
Moral betterment has come along with physical change, and the implication that these physical changes are what make him unfit for human company undermines the focus on his moral state. Duress has not made him a better person so much as a different person. The idea that physical difference is abomination but moral wrongness is a challenge to overcome may not sit well with some readers.
In “Pallbearers” (Galaxy’s Edge #7, March 2014), Martin L. Shoemaker would have us believe that his protagonist, Fitzsimmons, is trapped in a terrible place with no way out, but the trap is all in his own mind.
Fitzsimmons has been injured in military action and spends the story in an exoskeletal suit which provides for his every need. Though his neck has been broken, he is still mobile, comfortable, and competent. The rest of the platoon has not been so lucky. Fitz is alone, injured, and, for the time being, prevented from making his own decisions because the suit has classified him as disabled.
Don’t cry for Fitz too soon. His prospects are far from bleak. He has a 20% chance of full recovery. 60% of “meaningful partial recovery.” Worst-case scenario, he can come to inhabit a civilian suit which is “sleek, form-fitting models that would let me walk, run, climb, dance, diaper a baby… everything but feel.” He concludes he has to kill himself because a life where his wife will need to “take me out of the suit to bathe me and wipe my ass” is not worth living.
That living out a meaningful life with a disability is a worse scenario than, say, actually being killed on a distant planet by the hostile League is painfully ableist, and it is tempting to think this is just Fitz’s shock speaking. The story charges past this moment of introspection, however, as Fitz embarks on his quest to die. The nitty-gritty of actually doing the deed are complex. Fitz’s suit is powerful, and it’s gonna take some serious firepower to take him down. In working out how he is going to land that fatal blow, he discovers he has more power to control his surroundings than he first thought. He engages in some combat in which he never seems to be genuinely threatened and saves the day – his day, anyway, as almost everyone else has been dead since the beginning. Fitz doesn’t have to kill himself now, because he’s a superhero. Certainly, the injury catalyzed his superpowers, but this is in no way a story about learning to live differently.
“Even if this was the best I could look forward to,” Fitz muses after discovering he can control twenty-eight supersuits and a spaceship with his mind, “I had found … power that I had never imagined. I would learn to live with that.” His initial assessment of his situation still stands. If he were merely disabled, he’d be a goner. But superpowers? Well, maybe he could learn to live with that. It takes a bleak view of the value of life to think Fitz was ever in a bad situation, and so his escape feels trivial.
If he were merely disabled, he’d be a goner. But superpowers? Well, maybe he could learn to live with that.
Linda Nagata manages more tension in her story “Codename: Delphi” (Lightspeed #47) despite the fact that her protagonist, Karin, is never physically endangered. Karin is a handler – a remote back-up person for soldiers in combat zones. With a computer at her fingertips, she has to track every aspect of several remote battles simultaneously, managing the soldiers’ engagements. If she screws up, they die.
Karin admits she took this job for the money, but now that she doesn’t need it anymore, she wonders if she should quit while she’s ahead. The threat that her mishandling of a situation could result in the death of another feels very real. Physical harm is awful, but the guilt of a survivor who feels complicit is something we can empathize with as well. Karin may be remote, but the combat scenes Nagata describes are as sharp-edged and exciting as if we were really there. Karin’s desperation when she loses track of a client, or her relief when they sidestep a threat remind us of the stakes better than a narrator in the action might. She can afford to worry – the combatants must just act.
Karin may be remote, but the combat scenes Nagata describes are as sharp-edged and exciting as if we were really there.
What she can’t afford to do is panic, as we learn when one of the other handlers does. Karin is forced to take on extra clients mid-combat, a bureaucratic-sounding task which sounds more inconvenient than life threatening. The new client’s immediate reliance on her reminds us that this is definitely not paperwork. She holds the client’s life in trust, and the added tension of the fourth client mid-combat raises the stakes to a fever-pitch.
Nagata and Shoemaker present similar situations with their stories in many respects. A remote controller must micromanage units like a gamer playing Starcraft, fighting against overwhelming odds for victory. But though Fitz is on the battlefield, his units are already dead, empty suits which are expendable tools to their commander. Karin’s clients are people for whom she feels personally responsible. She isn’t fighting for her life, but theirs. “The war was five thousand miles away, but it was inside her head too,” Karin tells us. She is under duress without a physical trap, a trick that requires much more finesse to pull off. Nagata has done admirably.