Sad Monkeys In Space: “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly

Cover for December 2010 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Copyright © 2012 by Dell Magazines, A Division of Penny Publications, LLC.

I don’t normally review short stories outside of an anthology series, but in this case I’ll make an exception since I received a very nice comment from the author himself at the end of my Rewired series last year.  So today, we’re looking at “Plus or Minus,” a short story by James Patrick Kelly that was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2010.

Mariska Volochkova is a young crew member on the Shining Legend, a starship undergoing a long voyage in between human-colonized planets.  She’s on this journey because it’s the one place from which her famous mother can’t control her life, but it isn’t much comfort when dealing with the rest of the ship’s crew.  New grudges emerge and a catastrophe with the ship’s oxygen supply only makes matters worse.  In the end, Mariska emerges from the crisis with a few emotional scars, not the least of which includes a new twist on her already-strained relationship with her mother Natalya.

The first thing that caught my eye about this story was the technology.  On the one hand, a lot of the mechanics behind space travel and the Shining Legend are very grounded in reality.  There’s no artificial gravity, the ship has to accelerate and decelerate over a long period of time, and the crew (affectionately nicknamed “monkeys”) are mostly on board to be a fail-safe in the event of the ship’s automated systems breaking down.  On the other hand, immersive virtual reality exists and is frequently used to share dreams with other people, providing a much-needed escape from the cramped and tedious spaceship.  Considering modern trends, it makes sense that our information technology would be far more advanced than our space travel and energy supplies.

But what’s really important are the relationships in this story, especially in regard to the protagonist Mariska.  Much is made about her mother Natalya, whose fame shadows her everywhere and whose ideas give Mariska something to fight against in her own life choices.  But there’s also her evolving relationships with crewmembers like Beep and Richard FiveFord.  Friends fall under suspicion and rivals become surprising mentors.  The crew has to work together, but living together provides its own problems, leaving Mariska to feel even more isolated.

I was surprised at how tragic the story could get, though it’s a well-done tragedy.  The characters feel human and aren’t just caricatures, and it helps that most of Mariska’s assumptions or preconceptions at the beginning are all neatly overturned by the end.  You feel as if you’re there on the Shining Legend, taking your own slow, dark journey.

“Plus or Minus” can be read online or downloaded for free from the Official James Patrick Kelly Web Site.

Bibliography: Kelly, James Patrick.  “Plus or Minus.”  Asimov’s Science Fiction.  December 2010 issue.

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