What do you do when you’ve burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you’re Duke, an unusually moral lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:
“What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now.”
“You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?”
She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. “Oh, I have something better than that.”
And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City’s spaceport. “The words […] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle’s problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer’s afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm.” But looks, as Dave Hutchinson’s twisty new novella Acadie takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.
Something Better Than That ultimately does just what Conjugación promised: it almost instantly spirits Duke off to the Colony, a distant solar system several million souls have made their home under the leadership—like it or lump it—of Isabel Potter, a previous professor of molecular biology at Princeton known by the Bureau as “Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West. [Duke] actually knew someone who had invoked her name to make her children go to bed. She was Legend.”
She was Legend largely because, five hundred years ago or so, “she had had the simple, glowing epiphany that the human body was infinitely—and desirably—hackable, and she had begun to hack it.” This, needless to note, did not make her popular with… well, with people, really. But after being scared out of the United States, she and a cadre of her graduates took refuge in China, “where there were no real qualms about experiments on anything which took anyone’s fancy, and for a decade she thrived.”
But all good or ethically ambiguous things must end, and so too did Potter’s time in China. In lieu of a home on her home planet, she and her students created the Colony in complete secret in a system the Bureau had already blown through. There, they set about populating it with people, either invited like Duke or designed from the DNA on up by Potter’s lot, on whom they bestowed incredible intelligence, long life expectancy, and the like.
And that just about brings us to the beginning of the book. That, and the fact that Duke was eventually elected President:
The office of President actually had very little real power. What it did have was a lot of responsibility, of the kind when something is such a hot potato that everyone looks around for someone else to offload it onto. That was me, for the next three and half years or so. President of the Colony, doer of things nobody else wanted or could be bothered to do, taker of decisions so shitty nobody else wanted to be responsible for them.
When he wakes at the outset of Acadie, “on the morning after the morning after [his] hundred and fiftieth birthday,” it’s to take one such shitty decision. “For more than five hundred years, Isabel Potter and her companions had been at the very top of the Bureau’s Most Wanted List, and for more than five hundred years nobody had the faintest idea where they had gone.” The arrival of a probe that might or might not have been sent by Bureau changes all that, alas, and it falls to poor dear Duke to figure out what to do about it.
For such a short novel, there’s a lot going on in Acadie, including not a few flashbacks that fill in our grumpy protagonist’s past and set out the origins of the Colony, but even these pages practically fly by. Far from being boring, the backstory is equal parts fun and fascinating, and it allows readers to take a breather from the mystery that makes up the larger part of the novella’s breakneck narrative.
That mystery begins with the appearance of the aforementioned probe, extends to speculation about the intent of its sender, and ends with a conversational confrontation that rips the rug right out from under us by calling everything else we’ve learned into question. This twist is such a shock to the system that I had no sooner finished Acadie than I found myself starting it a second time to look for foreshadowing, and it’s a credit to Hutchinson that though I spotted several subtle tells in the text, the ending (when I came to that section again) still packed a proper punch.
I can’t say much more without a spoiler warning, but I will say that the impact of that whack is all the weightier because of the context that comes from character, and in Duke, Hutchinson has crafted the perfect protagonist for his purposes. Appealingly self-effacing yet capable, sharp if not as supernaturally smart as Potter’s potted people, and finally very funny, Duke is the heart and soul of the story, and it’s his presence that makes Acadie so much more than the sum of its parts. Without him, we’d have a backstory, a mystery and a twist; with him, said satellites have something solid to orbit, and Acadie is complete rather than merely neat.
Acadie is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.