Review #21: A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias S. Buckell

Posted by Nicky Drayden on May 6, 2010 in Reviews |

Author Website: tobiasbuckell.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine

Photo by MGShelton Creative Commons

The Story:

Stuck in perpetual air-debt on a space orbital, professional Friend Alex Mosette is out of options. Well, not completely out of options. There’s always the old fallback of going into hibernation in between jobs to minimize air consumption, but there’s also a new opportunity on a recently docked ship offering half a point on the package, enough for Alex to pay off all air debts and live comfortably — maybe even comfortably enough to upgrade from the cramped, coffin-like quarters Alex now calls home. The details of the contract are sketchy at best, but the risk is more palatable than spending unending days as a corpsicle aboard the orbital.

Aboard the ship, half-truths and strained allegiances are abound as the details of the contract are spelled out: Alex is to serve as a professional Friend to a Compact Drone, an entity detached from the Compact’s hive-mind sent to help determine if ant-like aliens on a newly discovered world qualify as intelligent life. As a Friend, Alex has to gain the Drone’s trust, and keep it sane during their mission. The Drone’s decision could mean the difference in walking away from this gig rich, or filthy rich, though as the truth unfolds, Alex might just be satisfied to walk away from this alive.

The Craft: World Building

SPOILERS

Oh, this is another fun one full of complex socioeconomic structures, artificial gender-bending, and alien botany. Before we talk about world building, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well this worked as a story — tension and mystery in all the right spots, twists and turns, and characters that really bleed when you prick them. What I love about A Jar of Goodwill is that it’s full of delectable BIG IDEAS, and yet they fit so comfortably in this short story, which pushes more into the realms of a novelette at about 8000 words, but every single one of them is worth it, working double time as they draw you deeper and deeper into this world.

The first big idea of this world revolves around air rationing, not an entirely new concept, but the execution of it in this piece reads like mind candy. Sure there’s only so much air to go around in space, but what happens when a person uses more than their quota and can’t pay? What are the options? Bottom feeders like Alex don’t have a lot of options, but you can bet on a space orbital, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people going paycheck to paycheck, their priority not being food or shelter, but air, something that we earthbound fools take for granted every single day. So while in this story we don’t spend a lot of time on the orbital, we do get a sense of the desperation for those living in cubbies, and when Alex sees the spacious 5×7 living quarters with free air on the ship, we can instantly relate to the thrill.

Putting a price tag on first contact is also a great idea. The planet Ve is a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Someone will get rich off of it, but now it’s only a matter of who, depending on whether or not the ant aliens are intelligent. The reader knows they are, the characters know they are, but that’s not what’s important. It’s all about what they can do about it to serve their own agendas and fatten their own wallets. The Vesians are doomed either way. Let me also say that Ve is a jewel of worldbuilding, with acid spewing plants, leaves like black Glad bags, and dog-sized ants breathing green atmosphere that’ll melt your skin off. But to the Vesians, it’s a little slice of heaven, and perhaps they too think it’s worth fighting for.

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