Novella Review: Strata, by Bradley Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell

Strata, by Bradley Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell
Set a century and a half in the future, on a sprawling mining platform orbiting the Sun, Strata is the story of redemption, second chances, sacrifice, and revolution. Oh, and racing. One must not forget racing. Skimming on the surface of the sun racing, that is.
Smith Poulson used to be a racer. What better sport can distract the company-town impoverished workers on platforms like Exx-Pac than have the corporations who have built the platforms outfit and sponsor daredevils who compete with each other, using flimsy ships on dangerous courses in the outer photosphere of the sun. Exciting, two person races for prestige and possibly even a ticket back home to Earth make racing even more alluring for the deadly dangerous. Poulson used to be a racer, and used to be active in local worker politics, until an accident (or was it sabotage?) ended the one career and scared him off the other. Now he is lower management, a union representative, with a pretty trophy wife and a relatively quiet life. He’s a lifer with no prospect or even motivation of leaving the platform for Earth, but his lot could be worse, right?
Now, a young racer named Kami, and the prospects of labor unrest on the platforms, and a plan to upset the apple cart for good threaten to suck him back both into worker politics as well as racing. And in the process, Poulson is faced to confront the truths that he has closed his eyes to for a very long time.
The strengths of Strata are many. Although some of the tropes and plot twists are sometimes telegraphed, the setting is strong and relatively underdeveloped. There are novels and stories that feature solar engineering, but the conceit of mixing solar engineering with a revolution and adding more than a dash of action adventure in the form of the racing is an inspired mix. The novella is at its best and is at its strongest when the action heats up, be it within or especially outside the Exx-pac platform.
The characterization, with one exception, is more than adequate. It’s not groundbreaking, but the characters don’t feel like cutouts waiting to be fried by the omnipresent sun. The relationship between Kami and Poulson throughout the novel is a strong and evolving one.
Themes of repression, rights, and freedom resonate strongly throughout the story.
The plotting is tight, complete with a Chekov’s gun that goes off. The ending fits what has happened before and the authors did not pull the two punches I thought that less confident authors might hold back on.
I do have a few criticisms, though.
I am not sure I buy the socioeconomic premise of the novel. Having platforms beaming power from the sun to an energy starved Earth is fine and dandy. I’m not sure the economics work for them to be simultaneously large enough for the populations they support AND simultaneously have a feudal sort of social system that makes them into old style company towns. This reminded me of the planet Vulcan that the titular character Sten hails from, from the Allen Cole novels.
I’m of two minds regarding the racing. From an action-adventure standpoint, the racing is a brilliant idea, wonderfully described in its execution. Some of the best scenes in the entire novella take place during the racing, and its clear the authors put a lot of time and effort into the concept. However, especially how dangerous in terms of matériel and men racing is, I’m surprised the corporations running the platforms would ever allow such a practice to start in the first place.
Lastly, the story only barely and technically passes the Bechdel test, and the one non-cameo female character we do see is somewhat underdeveloped. While the authors show good focus on the two main characters, the story did feel slightly like a throwback in this regard.
Overall, though, I did quite enjoy the story. I admit that I’m surprised that the authors chose to self publish their work instead of trying hard to get this into Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, or even more appropriately, Analog. It would not be out of place in any of those markets, and would fit comfortably and deservedly amongst them.

Hugo Award Eligibility 2011

Hugo and Nebula nominations for 2011 are now open!
If you attended last year’s WorldCon (attending or supporting) and/or are attending Chicon this year, you are eligible to make nominations.
I would like to mention here that the two organizations I write for, SF Signal and The Functional Nerds, both are eligible to be nominated for Best Fanzine for the articles they provide.
In addition, both the Functional Nerds and SF Signal are eligible for their podcasts under the categories of best Fancast and best Fanzine.
And its presumptuous, but I would also like to point out that if you like my curation of Mind Melds, or my book reviews, or Roll Perception Plus Awareness, I am eligible for a Hugo award nomination for Fan Writer.