I’ve been a fan of Robert Reed’s Great Ship stories for many years. Granted, the novels are not the absolute best. Though they are very good, I thought they could have been better.
More successful are Mr Reed’s short fiction pieces. I’ve enjoyed many of these over the years. And when the occasional Great Ship story comes out, like “The Remoras” or “Alone,” I get my Great Ship fix in a format this author has mastered.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a good novel like any serious reader. And I’m not afraid to tackle a hefty volume and spend several days with it. In the end quality trumps quantity.
Sunday and yesterday I read “Katabasis,” a novella set in a sub-environment of the planet-sized ship that immortal human beings run as a sort-of galactic cruise ship. Are immortal humans so bored with life that they subject themselves to trials and suffering just for the sheer enjoyment of it? Hmm, that would not be my first choice. I do think that if I were going to live for two or three centuries, maybe I would consider a second career by age 100. Architecture or astronomy, perhaps. Maybe some would see going back to school as a Sisyphean torture. That sort of endurance is what confronts the title character of this fine story.
Writing about immortals is difficult. Also, Mr Reed’s immortal humans don’t seem to change, develop, or really even grow (that is, learn from their mistakes). They seem something like troubled mid-lifers. If I lived for hundreds of thousands of years, would I feel the same way? Would I be stuck in the mud, never changing, never risking? Or if I knew I couldn’t be killed, would I tempt fate and disrupt my boring (?) routine by entering some ordeal in a high-gravity wheel that will routinely cause all manner of personal injury? Some of the characters in this story have literally lost their bodies, been reduced to mere brains or pieces of brain, only to be restored. This is fun?
Perhaps in stories set over time scales of decades to millennia, it’s difficult to impossible to paint the mortal human experience in a medium that one reads in a day or two. I remember reading an interview with the author in which the Great Ship was a “stage” for two admittedly interesting characters. Thing is, until these characters were revisited in “Katabasis,” I had forgotten their names. The stage I remembered. Maybe long, long life isn’t all that memorable after all. Although it seems remarkable this couple has been married for eons. Literally.
“Katabasis” is a deep and thoughtful novella that explores brokenness on a few different levels. As with a lot of Mr Reed’s fiction, there’s a certain random element in the universe. Sometimes it saves, and sometimes it crushes. The author seems to favor characters who persist, in spite of things seeming not to make sense. And sometimes, one must cut one’s losses in a bend-but-don’t-break way. When two characters are faced with starvation and possibly dooming their quest, they resort to a stratagem I’ve read about in other stories. I can forgive that bit of unoriginality, though.
As a person of faith, I put the lens of Jesus Christ on the science fiction I read. I’ve always been able to imagine myself in the settings of good sf. And I ask: what would I do? How would my responses be similar or different than the characters? What if a centuries-long slavery were imposed on me–and I would be living long enough to endure it? Would I be different than I am now?
This story will stick with me for several days, I’m sure. Good fiction–at least the good fiction I read–does that.