Hugo Nominee: “The Political Prisoner”

As previously noted, the story doesn’t appear to be available online. I will note, however, that this story has also been a Nebula nominee, is currently a Sturgeon nominee, and will appear in Dozois’ year’s best; so it really is, according to several different constituencies, one of the best stories of the year. What did reviews make of it?

Charlie Anders at io9:

Once again, the best thing in the current Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is a very political novella about spying during wartime. […] “The Political Officer” and “The Political Prisoner” both take place in a future society of quasi-Russian religious zealots that have terraformed a new planet the hard way: with their bare hands. They’re locked in a conflict with the Adareans, who have spliced non-human DNA to allow them to do things like photosynthesize (much like the enhanced Rebirths, in Reed’s “Five Thrillers.”) In “the Political Officer,” which is on the F&SF website, Max is a propagandist and spy, sent aboard a spaceship to spread the official party line and keep tabs on the Education Department’s rivals, the Intelligence Department. It’s very Gogol-esque. The ship is on a spy mission against the Adareans, but then it comes across a trade ship sporting some new technology that could give the humans an edge in their coming war against the Adareans

In the sequel, “The Political Prisoner,” Max comes back to Jesusalem, just in time for the battle between Political Education and Political Intelligence to heat up. He’s caught on the wrong side of things, and winds up part of a purge of Political Education supporters. He’s bussed out to a gulag, where he and his fellow prisoners are terraforming a new section of the planet, just like their religious zealot ancestors did. It’s incredibly rough work: carting rocks out to the ocean, and then carting back a ton of seaweed to help fertilize the dead ground. It’s not at all the way you picture terraforming, with huge machines or glowy lights. But it’s probably closer to the way actual terraforming would go. Max is forced to live among the Adareans and starts to understand more of their hybrid culture. It’s a worthy sequel to “Political Officer,” and a worthwhile read in its own right, despite a slightly disappointing ending.

Rich Horton:

My original review noted that “The Political Prisoner” violates Mundane Manifesto guidelines by positing a future interstellar human society tied together (at least to an extent) by FTL travel. (The review began by considering the Interzone Mundane SF issue.) Worse, it’s set on a planet not terribly advanced technologically (in some ways) from the 20th Century. There’s no denying such a future isn’t terribly plausible. But really this is an artificial construction — a stage set — for examining its central idea (and for telling a story). “The Political Prisoner” is a sequel to “The Political Officer”, and like that story it draws to some extent on Soviet history for its plot and situation. The title character in both stories is Maxim Nikomedes, an internal spy for one branch of the authoritarian government of the planet Jesusalem — that is, a man who spies on other factions of the government. Here he is swept up in political turnover and sent to a work camp. The main SFnal element here is that the work camps, instead of being in Siberia, are instead terraforming camps. But the heart of the story is the depiction of Nikomedes — not a nice man, but among even worse men, so queasily sympathetic.

What’s good here — mainly the portrait of Nikomedes, and the fairly plausible situation he ends up in, and its bitterly inevitable working out. What’s bad — well, as I hint at above, there’s not much SFnally exciting going on. There really is fairly little point in the story being SF at all. This is very well done stuff, but for an SF (or Fantasy) award, I want to have been thrilled by the central idea. (Or, alternately, the story could be so brilliant in other ways that that was less important … but that sets the bar for brilliance a lot higher.)

Jason Sanford:

My new story of the week is “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay from the August 2008 Fantasy and Science Fiction. […] Finley’s descriptions of the harsh reality of a reeducation camp–which is modeled on those infamous gulags of the old Soviet Union–are simply awe-inspiring, as are his descriptions of what people will do to survive in such a death-inducing environment.

However, the most amazing aspect of the story is Max himself. As a political officer, Max has a unique view on why all of this is being done to him. For example, when prisoners are killed as a way to teach everyone to stay in line, Max is both horrified at the sight and appreciative of the political skill of the man doing the killing. Likewise, he is now seeing the fruits of his own political work. For example, decades ago he created a derogatory term for a group of genetically altered humans; now Max hears people bandying this term around as they hate these altered people with an outsized passion. Max is vain enough to take pride in this outgrowth of his work–and old enough to also be ashamed. It is in this conflict between what Max has done in the past, and the changes he is undergoing in the reeducation camp, which makes the story such a winner. This story will likely be reprinted in some of the “year’s best” anthologies, and I highly recommend it to all readers.

Ian Sales:

I don’t get this story; I don’t get why it’s science fiction. Finlay might as well have set it in Nazi Germany. Or Stalinist Russia. Or any totalitarian regime which slaughtered great swathes of its population in the name of something or other. ‘The Political Prisoner’ may be set on another planet, and the forced labour is supposedly part of the terraforming required to make the world more habitable, but that’s as close as it gets to sf. Setting a story on another planet does not make it science fiction.
In my comments on Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ (see here), I mentioned the open mechanism which drives science fiction stories. That mechanism is absent in ‘The Political Prisoner’. Its workings do not need to be laid bare because everything is on the surface. Nikomedes is in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nikomedes can’t reveal his secret affiliation, Nikomedes gets sent to a reclamation camp and his past experiences help him survive, Nikomedes gets rescued. There is no idea which needs to be explicated, no idea upon which the plot is carried, no idea with consequences which can be explored.

I’ve not read Finlay’s ‘The Political Officer’, but I can only imagine that those who liked it voted for ‘The Political Prisoner’. Because on its own, there’s nothing in it that’s strikes me as award-worthy. There are enough examples of one group of people horribly treating another in recent human history, without having to go to all the trouble of writing a science fiction novella on the subject. Especially since ‘The Political Prisoner’ doesn’t actually say anything insightful or worthwhile. Nikomedes survives several months in the reclamation camp, then the head of Intelligence turns up and rescues him. Nikomedes asks that the prisoners he had been bunked with, the ones who had been doing the hardest labour, are released. Because, he says, “There’s been enough killing.” Oh dear.

‘The Political Prisoner’ is definitely the weakest of the three novellas I’ve read so far. And, like the Kress, I can’t quite understand why it was nominated in the first place.

Aliette de Bodard at The Fix:

“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay is a sequel to “The Political Officer,” which was published in 2002 in F&SF. Set on a planet where a rebellion turned the government from religious to secular, “The Political Prisoner” features Max Nicodemes, a political officer who works for the Department of Political Education, which is in charge of propaganda. Max’s boss, Mallove, has political ambitions of his own-especially now that Drozhin, the man who spearheaded the rebellion, reportedly lies dying. When purges shake the city, Max finds himself stranded in their midst.

This is the longest story of the issue, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Finlay’s fast-paced narrative makes the pages fly by, and Max’s ordeal is believably chilling, as are the politics underpinning the purges. When the story moves into the reclamation camps, where political prisoners work on terraforming the arid environment, it takes on echoes of similar camps in the 20th Century (gulags, but also penal labour camps such as the Japanese ones in WWII), and thus a special relevance-proving, sadly, that even in space and in the far future, mankind’s ability to inflict pain on one another is boundless. Recommended.

Russ Allbery:

I’m not much of a fan of Finley’s other work, but this one was a pleasant surprise. Lucky, that, since this very long novella is much of the issue.

This is a follow-up story to “The Political Officer,” which I haven’t read. Max Nikomedes is a political officer in a very religious colony world. At the start of the story, he’s been arrested due to changes in the political winners and losers in the government. From there, matters go from bad to worse, and he ends up in the prison camp system with a group of aliens, genetically-engineered offshoots of humanity that had been a convenient war target to rally the population. It follows the normal pattern of a prison camp story, of desperation and defiance and psychological struggle, but it’s well-written, hard-hitting, and didn’t become monotonous. The subject matter won’t be to everyone’s taste, and it’s not clear how much the SF setting adds to the story, but it’s well-told within its type. (7)

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

The use of Russian-sounding names helps evoke a strong sense of the Stalinist purges and the gulag. Jerusalem’s origin was as a fanatical theocracy, but doctrinal disputes have by now been replaced by raw power struggles. While Max is the consummate pragmatist, a man who can tell the boss he is betraying, “Sir, if you want me to be disloyal, I will be,” yet there is an idealist at his core; he can not help thinking that even this purge may ultimately be for the greater good, if not his own. A fascinating and complex character in a well-drawn scenario where the struggle for survival tests humanity to the breaking point.

So: any other comments?

7 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “The Political Prisoner”

  1. For my part:

    I know I’ve read “The Political Officer”, but I have to admit I don’t remember a thing about it beyond a vague lingering impression of spy-vs-spy hi-jinks, and the sense that the whole thing could just as easily have been set on a submarine as in space — i.e. I wasn’t particularly impressed. So, as for Russ, this was something of a pleasant surprise for me; it starts out in the same espionage-action vein, but transitions in what I thought was an effective manner into something a bit more penetrating. You’re set up to start guessing who’s behind the coup, and who’s playing who, but that turns out to be not so much unguessable as beside the point; and I thought the detail of the work camp scenes was quite effective. (Though I’m not sure I can go along with Charlie Anders’ suggestion that it’s how terraforming would likely go in real life, and nor did I find the characterisation of Nikomedes himself as impressive as some of the above reviewers evidently did.)

    So I did enjoy it. When it comes to the question of whether it’s science-fictional beneath the skin, clearly it’s not; as several of the above quotes note, the dynamics and situations of the story are familiar from real-world events, and are not significantly mutated by the sf elements. I’m not sure, though, that this is necessarily to the detriment of this story. The liftings are so blatant — from the place names to the use of “First they came…” — that I found them serving as a sort of disapproving commentary on other sf stories of this type. Plenty of sf stories, including ones that use horrific real-world events, try to hide their serial numbers. This one doesn’t.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. I don’t think Ian’s gloss is quite fair; I think Finlay manages to make the very casualness of Nikomedes’ release quite chilling, such a contrast to the gruelling business of survival that occupies most of the novella. The terrible banality of fluffy pink slippers and all that. That said, it’s hard to deny that an ending that leaves the door open for a sequel, that says this story does not end here is in some sense a betrayal, both of the real events that inspire “The Political Prisoner” and of the story’s own logic. I also felt, a few times, that the story was a bit too carefully crafted, a bit too neat — Vasily, in particular, seemed to shuttle between various roles deemed necessary to the story.

    So: admirable to an extent, but only to an extent; I’d think it a disappointing ballot if nothing was better than this.

  2. Niall: I don’t know how kosher it is for authors to contribute to these discussions, but I want to say thanks for pulling all these reviews together.

    As to whether the story is science fiction or not, I can only say that I wrote it as science fiction because that was the only way to explore the themes I was interested in. Who counts as human and not-human is a non-issue when both groups are human or one is and one is alien: when one is human and the other post-human as a direct result of scientific intervention, the question has more meaning. In my mind, the discussion between Max and the Adareans about the legacy of the twentieth century is also at the heart of the story: you can’t write about the legacy of the twentieth century from events within it because such a story is necessarily about the legacy of WWII, the gulags, Indian independence, or whatever other event you’re writing about. But when you create a situation that draws from many of those events, in the context of a cultural group that wants to preserve and remain in the twentieth century, then you can examine that legacy collectively.

    I’m willing to accept arguments that such ideas aren’t science fictional enough (because they don’t create a problem that a character can solve through the analogish application of scientific knowledge, for example), or that my examination of the ideas isn’t done well enough. But there doesn’t seem to me to be anyway to examine these themes better in a purely historical context: it’s the SFnal world that intensifies them and makes them explorable as ideas rather than as moral issues in the context of specific historical events.

  3. Hi! And welcome. I’ve got no problem with you commenting, though I should say that I wouldn’t expect your presence to lead anyone else to moderate their views (if, er, anyone else has any views…).

    As to your main point: you are Kazuo Ishiguro and I claim my five pounds. I saw him talking at a literary festival a few years ago, about Never Let Me Go, and he made a very similar argument: he saw himself as tackling abstracts, from which the specifics of the story emerged, and said that he felt uneasy about the fictional convention of having one character stand for a time, or a place, or a society. (He actually said that he was working on a novel about remembering and forgetting that was likely to be set in an alternate Scotland, rather than, say, postwar Japan, although that novel doesn’t appear to have materialised.)

    I think there are arguments for and against that approach. In the case of “The Political Prisoner”, you seem to be suggesting that one measure of the success or failure of the story might be the extent to which it recalls multiple situations, rather than just one — forces the reader towards that abstract level.

  4. No worries. I don’t expect anyone to moderate their views, and in the presence of a vigorous discussion I am likely to step aside. I’ve written my fifty percent of the story and ultimately readers will write their own fifty percent, regardless of my intentions.

    Your point about the multiple situations forcing a reader toward abstraction is exactly the thing I had in mind. For example, I made Jesusalem a religious colony (started in America) because of the importance of religion driving American actions in the twentieth century, because religion fundamentalism can embody a fear of change and scientific knowledge, and because of the access religion permits to so many culturally rich and useful symbols. But historically, both the Nazi regime with its death camps and Stalinist Russia with the gulags were distinctly non- or anti-religious: they were pursuing a nationalist or ideological agenda apart from religion. Someone writing a story about either historical period has to examine religious believers as victims or heroes instead of perpetrators. That is an interesting discussion on its own merits, but its been done elsewhere before. I felt that the SFnal setting of this story let me de-historicize events to examine other issues that interest me.

    I prefer to foreground the narrative and let the themes arise out of the events and decisions of the characters. In a genre where ideas are often explicitly foregrounded, this may push them too far to the back and even obscure them. And I’ve also written adventure stories with less thematic weight, I think, than this one, so it’s hard for me to criticize the critics. But in my mind this could only have been a science fiction story.

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