The Odds and Ends Shelf: Heavy Time

The dockside air went straight to the back of the throat and stung the sinuses, icy cold and smelling of volatiles. It tasted like ice water and oil and it cut through coats and gloves the way the clean and the cold finally cut through the stink Bird smelled in his sleep and imagined in the taste of his food. Time and again you got in from a run and the chronic sight of just one other human face, and when you looked at all the space around you and saw real live people and faces that weren’t your face—you got the sudden disconnected notion you were watching it all on vid, drifting there with only a tender and a hand-jet between you and a dizzy perspective down the mast—worse than EVAs in the deep belt, a lot dizzier.

C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe comes highly recommended, especially with her books Downbelow Station and Cyteen as jumping-on points. Instead, I started with the book I got at a clearance sale a while ago, since it turned out to cover the earliest events in the universe’s chronology. Neither this book nor the sequel, Hellburner, is available on Kindle, unlike two separate fan-made reading order lists that you can have for a dollar!

Before humanity makes first contact with the Chanur and a bunch of other alien races, they form an asteroid-mining company where all of the regulations seem to exist in order to keep their workers in thumbscrews and make sure they don’t steal from their betters. Two such workers, Morrie Bird and Ben Pollard, find a derelict ship, which would mean a legal opportunity to sell it for a nest egg if they hadn’t found a survivor on it. Ben comes from the “fuck you got mine” school and doesn’t want to let a technicality like a human life stand in his way of a better future for himself and Bird, but Bird just wants to get by and do what he can and isn’t going to let Ben straight up commit murder. The survivor, Paul Dekker, has been traumatized by the accident and the loss of his best friend in the crash, and has enough problems without his bosses trying to gaslight him into not rocking the boat.

What Heavy Time does well is emphasizing the plight that the working man’s corporate overlords have put him in. A lot of the space miner life is drudgery and tedium, with no guarantees that “Mama,” as miners call the computer that gives them marching orders and their intermediary with the bosses, will protect them if things go wrong. I especially appreciate that Ben, while plenty villainous, isn’t as bad as he could be. It takes him a long time to treat Dekker as a person and not a hindrance, but he brings up several times that he wants Bird to share in the prosperity that Dekker’s ship would bring them, and there’s no indication that he’s lying. It’s always clear that the blame lies with the management, though the story neglects to include an even more disenfranchised group that management and some workers use as a scapegoat, just like in real life. On the other hand, there’s an argument to be had in favor of this story keeping things simple, especially since it starts to lose me once it adds more elements to the mix.

The problems start with Bird and Ben’s friends Meg Kady and Sal Aboujib, who I could rarely tell apart. One or both of them are radicals who recognize the company for what it is and have their own agenda that Dekker is skeptical of since he burned out of the radical life. They’re nice enough to not use Dekker as a pawn and try to help him out instead, but they also speak in a malformed prediction of what dialect counterculture youths will use in the future. It’s not the worst example of this I’ve ever seen, but it’s still pretty bad. What really kept me at a distance was the climax, which is written in the textual equivalent of aggressive shaky-cam and slams into the narrative with barely any buildup. I got the gist of what happened and why by the end, but I felt content to leave everyone behind once everything wrapped up.

It’s not often that I’ve read science fiction with ambitions this modest, and I don’t want to slag Heavy Time for meeting those expectations. I can respect it for the work that went into depicting Dekker’s mental state and the details of everyday living at the company (the title refers to the period where miners are on the station and have to get used to gravity again), even if it’s less than enthralling. Still, I can’t help but think that Heavy Time was meant to be a light palate cleanser between Cherryh’s more complex works, and I think I’d rather give one of those a shot than continue straight on to Hellburner.

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