Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"The Boarder" by Alexander Jablokov

Possibly the most interesting aspect of "The Boarder," the lead story in March F&SF, is that by some definitions it isn't sf of any kind. In some ways, it's perfectly mainstream. Instead of having speculative elements, instead it is a historical story about science itself. In this case, the narrator remembers a Russian boarder his parents took in when he was young. Vassily was a metallurgist, and had worked on the Russian space program for some time in the 50s and 60s. The story doesn't have a plot: the narrator and Vassily interact, the narrator begins to grow up, and eventually Vassily moves on.

Some people would argue that stories like this don't belong in the speculative fiction magazines, but I think they have a place. Similar arguments were made about four of Neal Stephenson's books: Cryptonomicon and also all three books of the Baroque Cycle. However, I think there's a lot of value in fiction that examines ideas, even without speculative elements. Certainly if we harken back to Hugo Gernsback's aim of making science fiction educational Stephenson's works are great, and Jablokov's story also mentioned things I'd never known, or even much thought about, regarding the Russian space effort.

What worries me about "The Boarder" is its atmosphere of nostalgia. As a space afficionado myself, I want our dreams of space to be active and forward looking, not passive and backwards looking. Especially looking at the Russian efforts engender melancholy: half-assed engineering pushed beyond any reasonable timelines or safety margins in the name of furthering a political propaganda agenda. It may be good to remember that humanity's dreams were abused that way, but it is depressing.

Back to the story itself (I'm afraid I've been falling into the "talking about things other than the work at hand" trap that, among other things, other reviewers have been criticizing of late), it is generally a successful piece. Vassily captures our interest, the more so for being somewhat mysterious. The balance of information about the Russian space effort and Vassily personally is good, as is the pacing of revelations. However, this is interwoven with small vignettes about the narrator's youth and growth, and that didn't seem to work out as well. Those sections didn't reinforce the theme or tone that the Vassily sections had - Jablokov may have been shooting for contrasts, but that didn't come across either. Despite some of its structural flaws, I'm glad to have read this story; it was thought-provoking in some very positive ways.

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