Bradley P. Beaulieu
I got my copy of Strata from an early giveaway on the excellent Far Beyond Reality blog. It then sat unread on my hard drive for some months, until a trans-Pacific flight prompted me to finally buy a Kindle and set into a few of the ebooks that have been piling up. Strata thus has the honor of being the very first title for my Kindle; I finished it just out of sight of land. Until a couple of years ago, Strata probably wouldn’t have been published on its own. At 70 pages, it is more likely to have been a novella anchoring a short story collection or fix-up, rather than an independent publication. In these electronic days however, one can slap a much lower price tag on and pitch a novella by itself, which is exactly what the authors have done. The story feels just right at its present length, but with a couple hundred pages less to process, my critical reaction is destined to be proportionally shorter.
Strata is what happens when Anakin Skywalker’s pod racing meets the Pullman Strike of 1894, if the resulting offspring were to be marinated in a fiery inferno. The story starts off knee-deep in solar plasma, as two men race through a course that skims dangerously through the outer layers of the sun. They are employees of a massive power station that orbits near the sun, shipping the harvested energy back to a hungry Earth. Management appears to have slept through that part of Trickle Down Economics 101 when students learn that profits eventually make their way to the unwashed masses, as the bosses are perpetrating the usual Management tricks. Tickets to the station are cheap, tickets home are exorbitant, everything costs more than the workers can make, which drives them into a drug-induced and debt-ridden stupor.
From there, racing comes in and out of the story, but most of the narrative follows labor issues. The situation on the largest power station is explosive, to put things mildly, with plottings, secret police, sudden disappearances, turncoats, spies, and other such fun and shadowy stuff. Beaulieu and Gaskell take advantage of the shorter form to keep tension ratcheted up throughout; the novella length allows room to elaborate but prevents reader exhaustion. While the solar racing bits are more creative, the labor unrest is also engaging. The situation is predictable, though the authors prevent things from disintegrating into a Marxist screed. Through it all, the solar racing acts as an anchor for both Labor and Capital, and thus the story as well.
Strata is a good read and certainly worth the small price tag. I’m sold on Beaulieu’s writing and plan to check out the Slavic fantasy trilogy he has out from Nightshade. Hopefully this novella will get enough attention to draw more SF from the pair, as I will certainly give it a read if they deliver.
Rating: The Pacific Futsal Cup. Both the sport and the book are compact, end-to-end action on a smaller scale.