Here’s the third of the novellas on the Hugo shortlist, ‘The Political Prisoner’ by Charles Coleman Finlay, from F&SF‘s August 2008 issue. This is the second time Finlay has been nominated for the Hugo – he was also on the shortlist in 2003 for ‘The Political Officer’, which was set in the same universe and featured the same protagonist.
Maxim Nikomedes is an officer in the Department for Political Education on the world of Jesusalem, which was settled by Plain Christians (some sort of back-to-basics fundamentalist Christians). Nikomedes is also an undercover agent for the Department of Intelligence. The latter stages a coup, and there is a purge against Political Education. Because Nikomedes’ cover is a political officer, he gets caught up in the purge and carted off to a “reclamation camp”. Where he has to survive forced labour until he’s rescued when someone from Intelligence figures out where he is.
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.
And when the third paragraph of the story has the protagonist looking at their reflection so the writer can describe their appearance to the reader… well, that doesn’t bode well. ‘The Political Prisoner’ then dives into paragraph after paragraph of back-history, some of which I’m guessing is the plot of ‘The Political Officer’. I’m all for “not starting the story at the beginning”, but if you have to go back and describe that beginning in the narrative, then you’ve done something wrong.
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.