Severance by Chris Bucholz (Apex Publications, 326 pages, 2014)
It’s been over two hundred years since the Argos, a
generation ship, left Earth, bound for a new home (Tau Pruis III). Now,
you might suppose that the people on board have somehow progressed
beyond the violence and intolerance and hatred practiced on Earth in
order to have survived for this long on a ship in the middle of Nowhere,
Space, right? Yeah, well, not so fast…
In Severance, Bucholz takes us on a roller-coaster ride
of spaceship technology, genetic manipulation, and politics as dirty
and shameful as anything you can find in the news these days. Although
we’re never really told why humans left Earth, or even how they decided
who would get to leave, we do know that by the time the story begins,
many of those on the ship are either listless, really dumb, or both.
They form vomiting clubs, dress up as horses, and do all kinds of other
“interesting” things to stave off the intense and mind-numbing boredom
that comes with shooting through space on a pretty uninteresting ship.
Good thing the Argos is near its destination, and it’s time
for the ship to start decelerating. Easy, right? Just apply the brakes.
But of course it’s not that easy. Enter Laura Stein, a “canned baby” who
was able to overcome the stigma of her “unnatural” creation to become a
successful member of the ship’s maintenance crew. She also has a hobby-
sneaking around in the ducts and vents. Her friend Bruce has the same
hobby, only he also has sticky fingers.
When Laura starts noticing a strange pattern in maintenance requests,
together with an unexplained murder of another member of the
maintenance crew, she starts asking questions. Just before she can
connect the few dots that she has, though, all hell breaks loose. The
captain of the ship, Helot, has forced the civilian government into
hiding and initiated ship separation: in other words, he tries to split
the ship in half. Apparently, a generation before, the higher-ups on the
Argos realized that, due to course corrections, the entire
ship wouldn’t have enough fuel left to successfully decelerate to Tau
Prius. A smaller chunk of the ship, though, would be able to do it.
Eventually Laura, Bruce, and their friends learn that the military
has been quietly moving civilians into the half of the ship that will be
set adrift. The deposed mayor, a shady character himself, convinces
Laura and several other intelligent Argosians to rally behind him and
retake the ship. And then, on top of everything else, Laura learns that
this weird series of letters that pops up in her field of vision
sometimes is actually a marker for a data gene, a bit of code written
into her DNA by the doctor who created her. The message it contains?
They’re gonna split the ship in two! The plan, then, has been decades in
the making. It’s up to Laura and Bruce to stop the insanity and
convince the captain that the Argos can, in fact, make it to Tau Prius intact. If they can’t, there’s always Plan B…
Bucholz tells this, at times nail-bitingly tense, story with the kind
of deft humor and irony that makes you laugh out loud. The swear-laced
banter between Laura and Bruce, Laura’s jaded perspective on life, and
even the narrator’s detached irony make the story highly entertaining.
What struck me the most, though, was how Bucholz sets up this tale of an
awe-inspiring, courageous trip to settle another world and then peoples
it with humans who will throw themselves off of high places just
because they’re so freaking bored. Nobody on the ship is noble or
larger-than-life. In fact, a heavy dose of cosmic radiation a couple of
generations back severely damaged many people’s DNA, and gene-tinkerers
tried to repair the damage, while also making it so that the majority of
the population would become docile and obedient. Hence, a general
“dumbing down,” from which only a handful escaped.
There were times throughout the story when I could have done with
less detail about the ship’s innards and the reasons why the first
attempt to split the ship was so unsuccessful. Also, the jump between
the ending and the epilogue seemed too great- I had many unanswered
questions that should have been answered.
Overall, I enjoyed Severance and Bucholz’s style, and I look forward to reading whatever he writes next.
(first posted on SF Signal 12/9/14)