Maggie Clark. Belly Up. (Analog July/August 2017)

Read in : The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three. (ed Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books 2018)

An intriguing story from Clark. Imbra Tem has been released from court custody after murdering a local woman whilst high on drugs. His sentence has been to have been ‘declawed’ – a neural tweak that prevents him from being at the whim of hormonal urges and from feeling emotion. There’s a tense scene to start as some local guys, one the son of his victim, come to mete out a more ‘eye for an eye’ punishment. However after a subsequent run-in Imbra, and the son, Paloma, find themselves off the backwoods planet of Novuni, and closely involved in a battle against the approaching, and pretty much all-conquering ‘Allegiance’. The pair never build up a relationship, but using his native cunning, Imbra designs a trick play in an initial skirmish that sees Paloma strike a blow (EMP pulse, in fact) that gives the enemy pause for thought.

The final third of the story is the intriguing bit. You would expect further cleverness from Imbra that helps his side win the imminent combat, but he realises, from personal experience, that when the odds in a fight are dramatically stacked against you, the only way to avoid defeat is not to accept the fight, and he proposes a plan to this effect. Thus, there is no big concluding battle, and we follow Imbra as he wakes from suspended animation a century later, the Allegiance in control, neural block removed, and having to make peace with himself and how to find and name ‘all the forms of detachment through which a man might yet go unconquered, though every fiber in his being longed to cry out and give in’.

We never really get that much into Imbra’s mind (other than being high on drugs whilst committing the murder, we don’t find out anything else about that incident), and Paloma serves a purpose throughout without being fully formed, but to counterbalance there are some interesting background detail and a feeling of a planet/community/religion.

Only the second story I’ve read by Clark, (‘A Tower for the Coming World’ ‘A Tower for the Coming World’ reviewed here) and both have impressed and been just a little out of the usual run of the mill.

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