The merger of the Western and of science fiction is a trope of the genre itself (I have talked about this in a previous review). The vast frontier, indeed the final frontier (until we figure out how to travel to other universes), lends itself well to a life of danger and a society where law is severely limited and order a vanishing blur half the time. It is a place where the all-consuming forces of high modernism hit a bump in the road, and all sorts of characters can do all sorts of things outside the eyes of those who purport to be their betters. It has been in films, such as parts of Star Wars, and video games, such as StarCraft (a theme from Wings of Liberty gets the feel of the broader genre well I think). Today, we will be discussing a new entry in this subgenre, Threading the Needle by Monalista Foster, to be published on the fifth of December 2023 by Baen Books.
What strikes me about Threading the Needle, and which sets it apart from its fellow works in the genre, is that it confines its action to one planet; it’s like a Star Wars movie or show that confines itself to the shady underworld of Tatooine (and is not tempted to be a half-season of The Mandalorian in the process). Science fiction often uses the trope where every planet is a single biome, as implausible as that is, and can end up making these massive balls of rock and metal feel much smaller than they truly are. (in Star Wars, I remember Timothy Zahn having a good sense of how big a planet is). Here, instead, Foster shows a variety of environments on a single planet, with different towns with different people in them, some filthily rich and some desperately poor. This narrative choice, oddly enough, makes things feel larger; a planet feels like a planet, and the long journeys feel properly long. The use of recognizable forms of transportation, such as horses and carts (mostly) and, in one interesting case, a steamboat, both feels plausible (like the CoDominium works of Jerry Pournelle, where a single tank could decide the fate of a planet - perhaps not coincidentally, from the same publisher) and clearly roots the work in its ancestors.
Foster mixes things up a bit by adding some Japanese influence to the world she has made. There is mention of martial arts, and there are a number of scenes set in big Japanese-style bathhouses. It bears remembering that the Western genre has a long and fruitful exchange with Samurai fiction out of Japan. The end result feels like very good fusion cuisine; familiar enough to ground you, but new enough to be interesting.
Foster has created one of the most intriguing characters I have seen in a while in science fiction, Talia Merritt, otherwise known as Death’s Handmaiden (a title, I think, may well have made a better title for the book - maybe the next in the series?), a bounty hunter who is trying to get a new start on a new frontier world. But, of course, she has to be tangled up in a web of deceits, half-truths, and ambiguities when she is called in to take out an old comrade of hers. She refuses, knowing the value of friendships, and this act of kindness makes her a number of deadly enemies. She has enough snark to be funny without compromising the tone, and with enough heart to know right from wrong. I don’t know if my description of her is good, or makes her seem unique enough, but I enjoyed her.
One element of Talia’s past makes her stand out from many protagonists of space opera stories haunted by their pasts: in the bloody violence she once made her living with, she lost her right arm, and has to live with a cybernetic arm that mostly - mostly - works. There’s a running theme here of disability, of how this world, and doubtlessly others will, assume that people are able-bodied and in possession of all their limbs, and have those limbs functioning. Talia is someone who has lived her life by the sword, and has not yet died by the sword but has lost a limb to it, and this weighs on her, especially in a place where she went a long way to start anew. To use very modern terminology, her level of spoons to deal with this, when she has so much on her plate already, fluctuates from day to day. As someone with a disability (although a communications disability, autism specifically), I found much of what she wrote to be relatable. Foster clearly understands the travails of such an injury, and it makes this book stand out where it may well not have.
The plotting of this book reminded me of Timothy Zahn or Blake Crouch, with all sorts of twists and turns and other such events happening every which way. Foster is very good at it. She takes on a lot, and she succeeds in threading the needle (pun not intended but very much enjoyed), sewing them all into an engrossing narrative. She paces her story well, never letting it get off the rails, never letting it become dull.
As a history buff, there are parts of this book that made me somewhat uncomfortable, although they are more due to the tropes Foster plays with, and their historical background, than anything she intentionally did. There is no indigenous population on this planet, no great clash of cultures akin to what happened in our world, although there is plenty of conflict between the different social classes of settlers. Nor is there any population comparable to African-Americans, or Mexican-Americans. You could argue the Japanese influence covers the Asian presence in the Old West. I still couldn’t help but get the feeling that she was uncritically accepting of old tropes of the West, of steel-jawed white people facing off a savage, unforgiving, barren wasteland. As someone familiar with how utterly nasty the doctrine of terra nullius gets, it was in the back of my mind the entire time. Her introduction mentions the influence of a John Wayne film on this book, and it emulates that era of fiction for better and for worse. I feel like this could have been more sensitive, and it would also have made a more interesting world.
Threading the Needle is fun. Pure and simple fun. It adds to that fun a fully-developed world that you can imagine as being our future when we’ve finally reached the stars, a grotty future that feels properly lived in. It adds to this an interesting element of disability as well as some fresher cultural influences, and it keeps the mix an engaging one from beginning to end. I enjoyed it.
Highlights: the main character and how she related to her disability
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10
POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.