The Fortress at the End of Time by J. M. McDermott
Review copy provided by the author.
A quiet man takes a position in a lonely place, finds both the job and the people he works with aren’t what he expects, and finds a way to craft his own destiny despite the staggering inertia of isolation and depression. Sounds like a Prestigious Literary Novel, and not what you’d expect from a space novel, right? McDermott tosses the pew-pew-laser-laser cliches directly out the window and presents a character-driven novel where the interpersonal and introspective conflicts take the helm. You should check it out.
The choice between resigned despair and desperate action forms the tension in the book. Assigned to a crumbling coffin of a space station, Ronaldo Aldo repeatedly has his hopes for his life dashed by bad luck, by the anger of people who have little outlet for it, and by his own failings. He is unable to find any satisfaction in work, prevented from making any real change to his condition, and disallowed from any true emotional connection. The only apparent alternative to the demeaning drudgery of the assignment is taken all too frequently — the suicide rate is high.
Anyone who has been (or at least felt) trapped by circumstances can immediately relate. I could just run away, go AWOL, punch my boss in the mouth and let him try to catch me. But if I quit, how will I live? The world (or galaxy) is cold and indifferent; what if I can never find work again? Am I better off staying with what I have? Or am I simply not brave enough? Am I doing this to myself?
Soul-searching is not the reaction I have to most spacefaring fiction. McDermott’s world is filled with galaxy-spanning political and economic complexities which he shows not from the POV of the crack starship captain with a disregard for the rules or of the sharp-eyed heir-apparent to an oligarchic shipping dynasty, but through the small-scale experiences of people who can only wonder why the Powers That Be have seen fit to keep them cold and endangered at the far limit of human civilization. Their struggles, their foibles, their myriad ways of reacting to the same harsh truths of life are memorable and ring consistently true.