Like Watching Paint Dry, But Better
Here's the truth about military service: it's boring. You do the same things over and over for preparedness. It's incestuous. All the same people run in the same circles and when you're ready to get out, there's no shortage of defense contractors ready to pay you more to do the same thing you used to do. And it's extremely political. Not in the red versus blue way, in the make friends and do favors to get things done way, regardless of how things should work. All of this amplified by at least a factor of five when you're deployed. The Fortress at the End of Time gets all of this right.
Ronaldo Aldo attends a war college to be an astronavigator to improve his lot in life. However, his duty assignment is an outpost at the farthest reaches of humanity called Citadel. And he doesn't have go, but his clone does. His body will be scanned and transmitted, and reconstructed at Citadel, all memories intact and no way to escape. You see the only way out of this dead end assignment is to do so well he can transcend and get another clone sent somewhere better, get himself discharged to the colony below, or die. The story's told from the past tense, and from the perspective of Aldo confessing to a terrible sin, so you can tell it's going only one of two ways.
I can't find any indication that McDermott has served, but he clearly gets what military service is like. It grinds people down, just as it does Aldo and the other service members aboard Citadel station. They're all on a career-long deployment to the most boring and poorly supported space station in the galaxy. Having spent some time myself in places that felt like the edge of the world, McDermott accurately portrays the life of people who are going slowly insane of boredom. They're constantly polishing floors, trying not to kill themselves, having the same arguments, and picking each other apart at any opportunity. It's awful in real life, and it's doesn't make for a particularly exciting read, but isn't that the point? It's all building to answer the question of what Aldo did to warrant this extended time with a confessor.
This boredom cuts two ways though. I spent most of the time wondering where in the world this story was going. And the end is unlikely to blow anyone away. However, if you make it to the end, it comes together in a way that's unexpected. It's the kind of novel that I like more the farther away I get from it. It not only does the military stuff well, but it asks some difficult questions about the fairness of being a clone of somebody with memories of a world you'll never see, and no hope of improving your situation personally. It reads like a running train of thought, but it goes some places.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 painfully accurate portrayal of the most boring parts of military life
Penalties: -1 You've got to stick through it and it's going to try your patience to get anything resembling a payoff.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 (an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: McDermott, Joe M. The Fortress at the End of Time [Tor, 2017]