Space opera. It’s one of my favourite things. (Although, to be honest, I have a lot of favourite things.) Fast ships, shiny explosions, many technologically implausible things before breakfast... what’s not to like?*
*Rhetorical question. The amount of problematic assumptions, social and otherwise, repeated in space opera is plenty large. “How to be a fan of problematic things” applies.
Recently—and by recently, I mean in the last couple of years—I’ve been made aware that there have been, and still are, more women writing in this subgenre than I’d previously suspected. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, considering that my experience of reading space opera was for a long while largely shaped by what showed up in my local bookshop and on Baen’s online backlist. Neither of which, with occasional honourable exceptions (McCaffrey, Moon, Cherryh) put much in the way of female-authored militaristic space opera in front of me.
But there’s a whole universe of women writing interesting space opera out there, and if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out, I want to introduce you to some of it.
Just one book to start with. A debut novel from 1997, Susan R. Matthews’ An Exchange of Hostages.**
**All Matthews’ books are shamefully out of print and hard to find. Someone needs to reprint them, or at least make them available as ebooks, because they deserve better than to be forgotten.
An Exchange of Hostages isn’t the easiest book in the world to categorise: it’s an intensely character-focused novel set on a space station in a space operatic setting. I’m comfortable calling it space opera because succeeding books open the universe out into a broader canvas, but on its own it defies easy pigeonholing.
It’s also a difficult book to love unreservedly. I confess that I do, but I have a soft spot for impossible situations, well-drawn characters, and people caught between the rock of duty and the hard place of personal integrity. And I admire it when an author succeeds in disturbing me by causing me to sympathise with—and to understand—characters who do terrible things as part of terrible systems, and never lets you forget that none of this is right.
Sherwood Smith called it an “unflinching look at the physical and emotional consequences of anguish.” That’s a pretty good description for Matthews’ books – most of them, at any rate.
Andrej Koscuisko is a surgeon. Much against his will, but in compliance with the wishes of his family, he has come to Fleet Orientation Station Medical to learn how to be a Fleet chief medical officer under Jurisdiction, where he’ll learn how to be a torturer and an executioner for the brutal and unforgiving system of government called the Bench. He finds his duty morally repugnant—he finds the whole system morally repugnant—but he also comes to discover that he has a terrible talent for the work itself, and a capacity for taking pleasure in pain that repulses him on a moral level even as it attracts him on a physical one.
As a psychological exploration of the consequences of torture, it’s markedly ambitious for a first novel. It extends beyond that, however, developing a thematic argument over the nature of freedom and constraint, a constant emotional tension strung between internal and external pressures. As a reader, you spend most of the book hoping Andrej will find some way out of the impossible set of choices permitted him – but An Exchange of Hostages refuses any easy way out. No matter what he chooses, Andrej can’t stand outside the system. Whichever way he turns, he’s complicit in causing harm.
The most he can do is try to mitigate the damage.
The internal conflict, the man of medicine constrained to commit atrocity, the man who hates himself for enjoying his work, is entirely compelling. Unshowily competent with sentence-level prose, Matthews shines when it comes to characterisation, particularly in the relationship between Andrej and his personal security officer, the enslaved Joslire Curran. Matthews isn’t shy about portraying the impossibility of any remotely fair association between the pair, although affection and loyalty develop between them anyway, mostly thanks to Andrej’s unusual personal integrity.
(It takes, An Exchange of Hostages contends, unusual personal integrity to behave with any measure of decency when given—when required to exercise—absolute power over other thinking beings. It seems a logical argument, one born out by history.)
An Exchange of Hostages has its flaws. The third major character to have point of view here, Mergau Noycannir, another student at Fleet’s inquisitor school, at times feels like an afterthought, only there to illuminate Andrej’s good points by comparison with her failings. While the politics which she represents come to play a much larger role in subsequent volumes, her resentment of and competition with Andrej—and later, her determination to co-opt him for her patron—seems a touch on the predictable side. For a book otherwise so good at colouring matters in shades of grey, it’s a little disappointing.
But not very. As I believe I mentioned above, I like it a lot.
A tight, focused, quiet novel, An Exchange of Hostages made the Dick nominations for 1998. Inits wake, Matthews was also twice a finalist for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award, in 1998 and 1999.
1998’s the year, of course, that saw the publication of Matthews’ second novel, Prisoner of Conscience. I’ll be back to discuss it and its sequel, Hour of Judgement, in the next Sleeps With Monsters column.
Liz Bourke has occasionally been accused of having strange tastes in books. Find her on Twitter @hawkwing_lb.