The Fortress at the End of Time
Author: Joe M. McDermott
Release Date: January 2017
This was the first book I received as part of the Brilliant Books Monthly subscription that my wife got me for Christmas this year. For those not familiar, this is a neat service where you let the Brilliant Books people know your favorite and least favorite writers and they pick a book out for you every month (or however you set it up). I filled out their initial survey and also gave them a link to my Goodreads page, and my first book suggested was “The Fortress at the End of Time” by Joe McDermott. I own a ton of books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, so I was worried they would send one I already own. The book they sent was just released a few weeks ago, so I’m wondering if that’s normal for them to pick a new release to avoid sending a duplicate (but by the same token, I hope that somebody has read the books they are sending out ahead of time to make sure the quality is high).
So, enough about the service, how was the book? Overall it was good, but much like some of the early Hugo award winners I’ve read lately I don’t know if there was anything about it that I will be able to recall five years from now as really standing out. The story takes place in a far off future where man has colonized and terraformed numerous planets and systems, but told from a realistic stand point of the practical struggles of getting resources/people (and genetic diversity) to these far off locations. The method for accomplishing it is via an Ansible (similar to the one used for communication in “Ender’s Game” but on steroids) where messages can be sent instantaneously across time and space. In addition to messages however, exact replicas can also be sent across the cosmos when certain hydrogen, nitrogen, etc elements are in supply on the other side.
The story is told by Ronaldo Aldo, an Ensign who begins the book knowing he will be cloned and assigned an outpost somewhere in the Milky Way. The process of cloning is that Aldo enters an ansible and immediately another version of him is generated on the receiving end. The story then shifts and is told entirely from this new Ronaldo’s perspective. His assignment is a run down space station on the farthest edge of man’s exploration, and his task is to watch the instruments for signs of the enemy, an alien race that was fought in a war years before Aldo’s birth and not seen since. The outpost is a dump and considered the worst assignment an officer can get, and in addition to having limited resources it also has about a 50/4 ratio of men to women (if I remember right, that’s the entire population of the outpost). Located near the outpost is a planet in the process of being terraformed, one that can’t help but conjure visions of Arrakis from “Dune,” as the planet is mostly desert and water is the scare resource that must be constantly rationed/recycled. Only a few hundred people live on the planet, which contributes to the overall crappy nature of the mission.
The book has great internal logic, as the main character is not one that inspires confidence at any point in the novel and makes sense as a guy that would be rewarded with a crap assignment in an undesirable location. However that is also the biggest flaw of the book as the main character is the only one that is extensively developed and at no point is somebody the reader actively roots for. Aldo routinely alienates everybody he works with because of his arrogant attitude despite coming into the station with no idea of how anything works besides the one thing he’s specifically trained for. Even when he has good intentions of helping others out, he doesn’t attempt to work within the system or with others who were there before him. The ending of the book is a perfect example of this, as the character lives up to his personality throughout the rest of the book, which I found to be an interesting way to end it but may strike other readers as the cherry on top of an unpleasant read.
The supporting characters are delightfully diverse (just about every race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are represented in the small cast) however the first person storytelling severely limits the character arcs of all of them beyond Aldo’s views of them as people. The Betty and Veronica of Aldo’s book could not be more different: a physical specimen/beauty Sergeant that is a mystery to Aldo, and a post-op transgender colonist who immediately makes her desires known, however their character arcs could best be described as “desired by Aldo, not desired by Aldo” and vice versa.
Great characters are certainly not the book’s strong point, but high concepts still made it an enjoyable read. The idea of transcendence (being cloned to a better station in life) was a goal of most everybody involved, but the practicality of such a thing was addressed nicely. Any benefit of the process is actually bestowed on the cloned version of yourself, and that is a new person as soon as they are created, despite the shared memories with the original. The actual motivation for sending clones places is probably easy to figure out for many, but is explained nicely late enough in the book to make it a revelation I won’t spoil. The politics on the station reminded me more of stories from Battlestar Galactica than any other sci-fi I have read, so fans of that show may greatly enjoy this. So far Brilliant Books is 1 for 1 on sending an enjoyable book.