Between dayjobbery and a number of fantasy novels I’d committed to review, it’s been a while since I read any science fiction. I’m trying to restore a little balance to what I’ve been reading, and so between things I’ve committed to review, I decided to take a quick break with Strata. Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo was one of my favorite novels last year (see my review here), so when I saw he had co-written this short novel with Stephen Gaskell, I knew I had to read it.
And I’m glad I did. While it’s not what I would consider hard science (the authors don’t go into a great deal of technical detail), they did do their research. I’ve always been skeptical of stories where spacecraft, never mind whole stations such as those here, get right up next to the Sun. So when I say the authors made me suspend my disbelief, that’s saying something.
This is the story of two men, the young Kawe and the older Poulson, and a rebellion. It’s also about skimmer races meters above the Sun’s convection zones. In other words, science fiction the way it was meant to be and too often isn’t these days. Full of excitement and a sense of wonder. And the race scenes were downright fun, while being pretty intense at the same time.
A handful of stations which have been granted independent status by Earth’s courts orbit the Sun, harvesting energy from the violent magnetic fields. Workers from Earth, mostly forced there by harsh situations, are little more than slaves, with few chances to make it home.
Poulson is a former union man, now the lover of a woman from the management levels. At one time he was the hero of the underground. Then a skimmer accident in a race put him on the sidelines, forcing him to be a handler for other racers.
Kawe came to the station as a fourteen year old, when he and his mother fled the death threats of his father. He’s the most talented racer currently active, probably the most talented ever. Poulson is his handler. Unbeknownst to Poulson, Kawe is also involved in the resistance, which has gotten more ruthless since Poulson’s days. Kawe is using the races to drop devices into the Sun in the hopes of triggering a coronal mass ejection. This will shut down the stations, allowing the resistance to lead a rebellion.
The story is told from the viewpoints of Kawe and Poulson. The action is fast, the suspense intense, and the races scenes exhilarating. And don’t think this short novel is long on plot and short on character. It’s not. A great deal of what drives the story is the internal conflict both characters undergo, especially Poulson.
This was great read, and I finished it in a few hours. I can see Beaulieu and Gaskell expanding it into a full length novel. There are enough secondary characters here that they could flesh the story out without padding it. We get glimpses of the future in which this novel is set, but no detailed looks. That’s appropriate for a novel this short, but I would like to see more of this world. I enjoy a good, near future science fiction story, and this is a fine example of such. Gaskell is working on his first novel, and you can be sure I’m going to read it when it comes out. In the meantime, I’m waiting on Beaulieu’s second novel, due out later this year. If you aren’t familiar either of these authors, Strata is a great introduction.