I was a big fan of Bradley Beaulieu’s debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo. It’s an incredibly nuanced epic fantasy set in a Cyrillic-esque second world (full review). When I found out that Beaulieu was trying his hand at a science fiction novella, I was intrigued. My curiosity was further piqued when I discovered he was working with Stephen Gaskell, as the merging of styles always interests me.
In the twenty-second century, Earth’s oil and gas reserves have been spent. Vast solar mining platforms circle the upper atmosphere of the sun, drawing power lines up from the interior to be sent back to Earth. For the platforms’ teeming masses, life is hard. Most dream of a return Earthside, but a two-way ticket wasn’t part of deal.
Set against the backdrop of this dystopian reality, Strata begins with a race. Skimmers jockey for position along the sun’s convection zone, dodging the plasma plumes that shoot into space. Kawe is the best pilot on the platform. He’s only a few races away from winning the cup, and with it his freedom. But, he has no intention of winning — a Movement is afoot to overthrow the corrupt regime. Kawe’s friend and handler, Smith Pouslon, doesn’t want to hear it. He once tried to make a difference, and now he’ll do anything to make sure his protege doesn’t throw his life away.
The novel is written from the limited third person in two distinct points of view — Kawe and Pouslon – and focuses on Kawe’s attempts at revolution and Pouslon’s desire to stop him. While I presume each author wrote one of the points of view, the end product reads in voice that is neither Beaulieu or Gaskell. The prose is polished, but also communicates a rawness that lends itself well to the cramped and hard life on the platforms. Unfortunately, the short format never allows for the authors to provide much detail about the world they’ve created. As a result, the race scenes, adrenaline fueled though they are, come across a tad muddled, not dissimilar to the criticisms I levied against Beaulieu’s airship scenes in Winds of Khalakovo. Instead, the focus is entirely on the novella’s two protagonists, and from that perspective it’s a rousing success.
One thing I couldn’t get out of my mind reading Strata was the fact that Beaulieu is from Wisconsin. Some may remember the discussions that dominated the state last year, when Governor Scott Walker tried to break the state employees labor union. Not to get political, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the inspiration for the novella stems from that debate. The corporation that runs the platform oppresses its workers, selling them a bill of goods on Earth, only to revoke that contract once they find themselves stranded and without legal recourse. While the structure of the argument is tangential at best, it seems clear that the authors are at the very least demonstrating the importance of worker protections.
Like all good speculative fiction, Strata is as much about now as it is about the future and Beaulieu and Gaskell do a tremendous job of making that connection. Clocking in around 70 pages, and priced at $0.99 in all eFormats, I can’t imagine many better (or inexpensive) ways to spend two hours. Maybe if enough people buy Strata, the authors can be convinced to expand to a novel length — there’s certainly enough substance here to make the jump.