|Art by Christopher Enterline|
The Thing in the Ice by E. Catherine Tobler (novella)
This piece keeps the giant monsters rolling from my previous experience with the Kaiju Revisited line, but here the action takes place entirely off-world, at a mining operation that's harvesting water ice for Earth, to keep people drinking and alive. It's a lucrative business, which means that it's a corrupt one, and Flit, the main character, is a specialist in drilling who doubles as something of a "problem solver." The problem? Ceres Station has been overrun not only by pirates hoping to loot the ice as the operation pulls out, but giant ice dragons who are rampaging for reasons that, at first, are completely unknown. The story is a mix of action, mystery, and science fiction as the plot takes Flit to the core of the asteroid she's been mining as well as the the depths of her own heart. It's a chilling, heartbreaking story that still leaves room for hope, and it's told with a compelling, luminous style that makes it another excellent installment in the Kaiju Revisited series.
But what would a review of a Kaiju novella be without a look at the monsters? They are frightening, adorable, and understandable all at once. The mystery behind these ice dragons is intense, and something that slowly unfolds for Flit as she explores areas of the asteroid that shouldn't exist, but maybe that she was just ignoring. The setting is full of exploitation and injustice, after all, corporations helping to spread to the solar system what already has largely devastated the Earth ecosystem. Flit has joined the mining operation because it offers the prospect of freedom, but also because there really are no other options. In this setting, people have to buy their freedom, but with costs always mounting to put people back in debt, actual freedom necessitates large risks. For Flit, those risks seem worth it, and she's skilled enough and brave enough to face them. Except, of course, then there's dragons, and all bets are off. And I love how these dragons, for me, come to stand in for a return of something primal and raw, that escape when exploitation goes too far. They find in Flit something of a kindred spirit, and okay, I absolutely adore Bear, the baby ice dragon. Just so adorable and deadly and it works so well to show some of what's going on with Flit internally even as they're dealing with the external crisis.
The dragons otherwise are sort of like the debt that Flit has been fighting her entire life. They aren't fair, these huge monsters that have been released by corporate and personal greed that she is tasked with paying for, with trying to fix, and if failing, probably dying because of it. And as long as she plays by the rules of her corporate masters, the future seems only full of violence and death and despair. So I appreciate that the story offers some hope, even if it's tinged with loss and grief. Because don't get me wrong, the story is dark. Much of the piece is aimed at tragedy, at violence, at cost of trying to work within this broken system. Even Flit, who hates it, who wants to live free of it, is still touched by having to work within it, to contribute to the exploitation. This is not a piece that imagines the happy ending that I might have been hoping for throughout. But the story doesn't have to be happy to be hopeful. Flit is offered a choice, in the end. To try and grasp at the same illusion of freedom that the corporations are offering, or striking out into new territory. And that's a choice I feel the story gives proper weight and a beautiful finish to.
This is not a story that most will probably walk away from smiling. There are plenty of viscerally satisfying moments in the story, and there's a solid hope that runs through it, and even moments of fun. But there is also a weight to it, and one that the ending hammers home very well. This is not an easy read, for all that I love Bear, because it gets into the messy nature of corruption and operating inside it. It's about systems and how happy endings just aren't possible where the system is toxic. But it does reach for a way forward. A way to heal, even if the wounds can never be erased. And it's a great read!