While a couple of this year’s novella nominees are so sfnal as to be essentially incomprehensible, Finlay gives us a story that is a compelling read and throws around a few questions and ideas worth pondering, but could be accused of not being science fictional enough. Following along from his 2002 Hugo-nominated novella “The Political Officer”, this story features the return of that tale’s protagonist, Max Nikomedes, who has the dubious occupation of double agent in the midst of an ongoing war between two quasi-religious factions whose motives are unclear. In that first story Max had to cause a nuclear accident on a spaceship in order to accomplish his objective and keep his cover, and this story picks up not too long after that where the ongoing skirmishes between his two rival masters lands him in the wrong place during an assassination attempt and ultimately bound for a labor camp.
The bulk of the story focuses on Max’s efforts to stay alive and gain any advantage while being held prisoner, ultimately befriending a group of humans called Antaeans who have gone through enough genetic modification that they are no longer treated as humans. Finlay channels Solzhenitsyn in his account of the camp, from the looming specter of imminent death and mind-numbing misery to the conceit that many of the characters names are Russian. The underlying theme seems to be that when presented with two opposing points of view, such as in a civil war, everyone is compelled to choose a side and has to subsequently stand by that decision whether they want to or not, especially when it can quickly turn against them. I don’t think there’s anything too substantive to take away from this idea after having read the story, but Finlay does a creditable job in conveying the desperation and fragility of human life among the prisoners. There just isn’t much science fiction in this story to make it significantly different from if it really did take place in Stalinist Russia. Yes, there are “aliens” in the form of the Antaeans, but they could just as easily be some indeterminate eastern European nationality, and everyone’s motives are fairly universal, the whole thing between Max’s two bosses and their corresponding factions is kind of vague and doesn’t seem to be that important except to provide a reason for the plot.
At the end, Max has inevitably changed, with a deeper understanding of the distinction between oppressed and oppressors, but it’s not exactly uplifting. At novella-length this story almost isn’t long enough, in that everything seems to be leading up to Max’s abduction to the camp, and yet his time in the camp goes by fairly quickly, and the ending is tied up in just a few pages, such that it’s difficult to tell what the focus of the story was supposed to be. Still, well worth reading and with some broader questions to ponder, just not sure if it benefits from the trappings of sf or if it would be just as effective as non-genre fiction.