I was bopping around looking for some good ol’ space opera to read, and I came across Burn by James Patrick Kelly instead. I found it on manybooks.net, and after I registered I sat down to read it.
It’s really good.
We get a glimpse of far-future humankind, with tech that borders on magic, but there’s also a little mysticism. Or at least luck. That future is merely a backdrop, however; the actual conflicts, the personal and the political, are very human, and told from the point of view of Spur, someone we can understand. His acestors decided to abandon the tech and go back to a simpler life. While Spur knows that the “upside” exists and is filled with tech marvels, he also knows that the same technology at some point must undermine the humanity of those who wield it.
Of course he knows that; he’s been taught that his entire life.
There’s a shade of Buck Rodgers here — not the swashbuckling space hero nonsense I love so much, but “the future as seen by someone like me” narrative. Except Buck doesn’t have to deal with differences between past and future that are quite so fundamental as the ones Spur struggles with.
Spur is badly wounded fighting a fire that is almost a diabolical intelligence on its own. While convalescing he is in a hospital that gives him, for the first time in his life, a glimpse of the upside.
While healing, Spur is given a chance to reach out to the universe. It is a guilty pleasure, an idle conceit as he convalesces, one he knows his friends will not approve of. He pokes at the universe, almost randomly. But then the universe answers back. The fuckin’ universe answers back. Luck, it’s just luck. The event that triggers this story (or the part of the story we see here), is one of near-fantastic luck. It would be difficult to swallow, except, well, luck is a real thing.
The author does an admirable job of avoiding judgement; there is no absolute “right” and “wrong”. While characters make judgements, the author does well to not color the debate with his own leanings. One person says “terrorist”, another says “martyr.” “Us” and “them” gets tangled. And there are subtle elements, as well. Spur is married, but the marriage is on the rocks. There are the usual reasons, but perhaps he was in love with someone else all along.
One quibble: if pukpuk had been capitalized like most organizations of humans are, I would have parsed the opening sequence (which is pretty hectic) more cleanly.
Like all human conflicts, not everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of this story. The immediate conflict is resolved in a satisfying way, and the final choice Spur makes rings true. There are still large questions outstanding, about the future of the planet and the clever indigenous species. But Spur has had a taste of what the upside has to offer, and in the end this story is about him, and the choice he must make.
I wrote some of the above on the manybooks.net site, then I decided to share my findings here as well. As per tradition, I went to Amazon to get links to share. It was then that I learned that this story has earned the Hugo and Nebula awards. Well then!
Note: if you use the above link to buy the book (or an Antique Silver Multi Cut Rhinestone Bridal Royal Tiara Headband) from Amazon, I get a kickback.