In the 22nd century, resource depletion and Earth’s ever-increasing energy demands have led humanity to a brand new frontier: huge platforms circle the Sun and draw energy directly from its surface. In the past, corporations offered enticing contracts that included free transfer to the platforms in order to motivate workers to join the solar workforce and leave an often dire existence on Earth, but what they neglected to mention was carefully hidden in the fine print: transfer back to Earth is insanely expensive and not included. The result is a class of indentured servants, toiling away in unpleasant and dangerous conditions, trying to earn passage back to Earth while their corporate masters grow ever richer.
The downtrodden masses do need their entertainment, and this is provided by a spectacular new sport that involves racing skimmers along the Sun’s surface. Kawe is a star in this sport, known far and wide along the platforms, but what far fewer people know is that he is also a member of an underground resistance movement aiming to overthrow the platforms’ corporate rulers and gain fair working conditions for everyone. At the beginning of Strata, Kawe is racing his skimmer along the surface of the Sun, but he is also carrying a device that may trigger solar eruptions, as part of a plot by the resistance movement to cause chaos on the platforms and wrest control away from the corporations.
Strata is a novella-length collaboration between Bradley Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell. Beaulieu’s debut The Winds of Khalakovo is currently out from Night Shade Books, and The Straits of Galahesh, the second book in his series The Lays of Anuskaya, is due out in April. Stephen Gaskell, who is working on his first novel, has published short fiction in a number of venues including Interzone and Clarkesworld. Strata is their first collaboration. I hope it won’t be their last, because this turned out to be an intelligent and exciting piece of science fiction writing that shows a lot of promise for possible full-length works in the future.
Strata does a lot of things right. It offers fascinating characters, places them in a spectacular SF setting, and runs them through a nail-biting fight-the-power plot. The two main characters are Kawe and Poulson. Kawe is the racer who wants to do the right thing, but “the right thing” means different things depending on who you ask. His ailing mother wants him to win races and earn enough money to get back home to Earth, while his friends in the movement want him to use the races to advance their plans. Those plans may eventually help workers, but in the short term they will cost many lives. Poulson is Kawe’s handler during the races, and his complex history makes the entire situation even more difficult. The moral struggles that both of these characters deal with are what makes Strata more than a run-of-the-mill science fiction novella.
All of Strata takes place in the Sun’s orbit — a great setting that reminded me of the science fiction I cut my teeth on. The concept almost feels like authors trying to one-up each other: “Let’s write a story with spectacular, Wipeout-style racing!” “Yes! And let’s set it somewhere in space, like… like Venus!” “Or a gas giant!” “Or… or… let’s set it on the Sun!” What gives the setting its edge is the way it contrasts the wild concept of collecting the Sun’s energy right in the Sun’s orbit, not to mention the spectacular solar skimmer races, with the plight of the “lifers” who are stuck on the platforms, trapped in an extralegal quagmire and kept docile with drugs. Beaulieu and Gaskell took a concept from the Golden Age of SF and mixed it with much more current ideas. The result is dystopian SF that’s still high on good, old-fashioned sense of wonder.
Like all good novellas, Strata packs a lot of information in a limited amount of pages. If anything, it reads as if someone took a tiny slice out of a sprawling, complex SF series, like something by Peter F. Hamilton. There are a few tantalizing hints that there’s a lot happening in the background. It feels like a chapter of something much bigger, with a huge SF universe and a history that remains mostly unexplored. This universe simply begs for a full length novel or even a series, and since the cover reads A Story of the Future Suns, it looks like we can expect more in the future. A recent interview I conducted with the authors also indicates that there’s a chance of further stories in this setting. We can only hope.
As much as I enjoyed Strata, there are still a few minor issues. The first few pages contain some technical jargon that sounds impressive but is ultimately fairly meaningless. You could probably replace most of those terms with “flux capacitors” without losing much. I also felt that the “bliss” drug used to control the worker population, and its antidote “muse,” felt both too familiar and not entirely plausible.
Still, these are minor issues in a novella that’s otherwise excellent. Strata successfully strikes a balance between a number of different concepts. It’s dystopian science fiction, set in what feels like a far future setting but is actually only the 22nd century. It’s political, but it’s also a very personal story of private suffering and of individual decisions that may change many lives. It starts with races straight out of a video game, but quickly takes a sharp turn and becomes deadly serious. Strata is simply an excellent science fiction novella that feels like a showcase for potential further novels in this universe. I definitely hope we’ll see more, but for now, Strata — available in Kindle and Nook formats for just $0.99 — is a surprising and rewarding standalone novella. Recommended.