Susan R. Matthews has an unexpectedly compelling touch for atrocity. Unflinching is a word that I keep coming back to with regard to her books: science fiction and fantasy is rarely willing to look the human consequences of atrocity in the eye. Even less often does it find itself able to do so with nuance and complexity.
Matthews has a knack for working with horrific material in a way that acknowledges human capacity for humour, decency, affection, and survival without ever minimising the horror. She also has a knack for writing stuff that really ought to come with nightmare warnings: Prisoner of Conscience, her second novel, is perhaps the book of hers which I appreciate most – but, O Gentle Readers, I’m not made of stern enough metal to come away unscathed from a novel which essentially deals with one long, drawn-out, stomach-turning war crime.
Or perhaps a series of them. It’s a little hard to draw a clear distinction.
So, Prisoner of Conscience. It’s a sequel to An Exchange of Hostages, and Chief Medical Officer Andrej Koscuisko, Ship’s Inquisitor, is about to be reassigned from his relatively non-terrible position aboard the Bench warship Scylla to a penal facility at Port Rudistal. The Domitt Prison is home to hundreds of prisoners in the aftermath of an insurrection. And Andrej will be expected to exercise his inquisitorial function—to be a torturer—to the exclusion of all else, and to the detriment of his sanity.
Cruel and unjust as the rule of law is in Matthews’ Bench universe, however, it has its limits. There are rules about who can torture and execute prisoners, and how that may be done. The Domitt Prison has been ignoring the rules from the beginning, to such an extent that genocide has been done. Andrej, distracted by the death of one of his security officers and by playing the torturer’s role, is slow to realise that something is badly wrong. But for all his faults, Andrej is a man of honour. What he does for the rule of law is an abomination, but what’s been going on at Port Rudistal is even worse. And it’s up to him to put an end to it.
It’s just as well there are a good few chapters of Andrej being compassionate and honourable and doctorly before we get to the prison, because reading Prisoner of Conscience is a kick in the throat and no mistake.
Not so much because of Andrej Koscuisko, although he’s a strangely compelling bloke for a torturer. But because of two other characters through whose eyes we see: the imprisoned, doomed former warleader Robis Darmon, and Ailynn, a woman indentured to the Bench for thirty years, whose services the prison administration has purchased to see to Andrej Koscuisko’s sexual comfort. Andrej may be, to an extent, at the mercy of the system, but he also has power within it. Darmon and Ailynn have none: in Ailynn’s case, even her autonomy of thought is constrained by the device the Bench implants in those it condemns to servitude, the “governor.”
Darmon suffers under Andrej’s torture. Ailynn is not free to give or withhold consent. The horror of the Domitt Prison is impersonal: victims tortured, burned or buried alive, are not held up close to our view. Darmon and Ailynn are, and that puts the edge on the knife of empathy that Matthews keeps twisting all the way through.
It’s a kick in the throat, but—unlike some other novels—I don’t mind it much, because Prisoner of Conscience doesn’t expect me to think any of this is okay. And I have rarely, if ever, seen similar material treatment with half so much sensitivity.
Which is not to say the part where Andrej discovers that prisoners are going alive into the furnaces doesn’t turn my stomach.
After Prisoner of Conscience, 1999’s Hour of Judgement feels practically fluffy and hopeful by comparison. It’s the first of Matthews’ novels to draw back and show a bigger glimpse of the wider universe—politically and socially—beyond Andrej Koscuisko himself. It also probably has the least percentage of actual torture as any book to date, although with a depraved captain as his commanding officer, a secret warrant for his death, and his hope of getting away from being an Inquisitor thwarted, there’s surely a lot of emotional strain on our old friend Andrej. A strain which is redoubled when his best-loved security officer, Robert Saint Clare, does something that the governor in his head should have prevented, and kills a ship’s officer.
The lieutenant in question had it coming, by any stretch of the imagination. But if Saint Clare is found out, Andrej would be even more hard-pressed to protect his own. And Andrej Koscuisko has not damned himself for eight years for nothing.
Matthews’ Jurisdiction novels are deeply focused on character, and intensely interested in anguish, the dynamics of absolute power, and the tension between conflicting—I hesitate to say “moral,” but perhaps “dutiful” will do—imperatives. I have yet to read science fiction by another author that takes these themes from a similar angle.
So what do you think, guys?
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