“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley is the fourth story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing this anthology one story at a time while contemplating the nature of writing science fiction. “Dead Men Walking” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. In 2007 it was recognized as one of the best stories of the year by both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer annuals. In 2013 “Dead Men Walking” was reprinted in Clarkesworld (read/listen) and in Pual McAuley’s ebook collection, Life After Wartime, part of his Quiet War series.
“Dead Men Walking” is the first story in The Very Best of the Best that I thought of as traditional straight-ahead science fiction. The story is told in the first person by a man who is dying. He’s recording his last thoughts for whoever discovers his body. This immediately reminded me of the classic film D.O.A. – not the newer 1988 film, but the great 1949 version with Edmond O’Brien. It’s a highly specialized writing challenge to pull off a first-person account of a dying character. McAuley’s effort is tight and succeeds. However, by its very nature, a murder victim’s POV involves violence.
I’m not knocking “Dead Men Walking” but I’ve reached an age where violence in fiction is not the page-turning force it was when I was younger. I no longer care whodunit. However, I can still watch and read mysteries and thrillers for their settings and characters. This story takes place on Ariel, the fourth-largest moon of Uranus. Ariel is a cryogenically cold world I doubt humans will ever settle, but Paul McAuley builds a prison there. However, because of the low gravity, McAuley makes it sound rather appealing place to live or read about:
I have a one-room treehouse. It’s not very big and plainly furnished, but you can sit on the porch of a morning, watch squirrel monkeys chase each other through the pines. I’m a member of Sweat Lodge #23. I breed singing crickets, have won several competitions with them. Mostly they’re hacked to sing fragments of Mozart, nothing fancy, but my line has good sustain and excellent timbre and pitch. I hope old Willy Gup keeps it going … I like to hike too, and climb freestyle. I once soloed the Broken Book route in Prospero Chasma on Miranda, twenty kilometres up a vertical face, in fifteen hours. Nowhere near the record, but pretty good for someone with a terminal illness. I’ve already had various bouts of cancer, but retroviruses dealt with those easily enough. What’s killing me—what just lost the race to kill me—is a general systematic failure something like lupus. I couldn’t get any treatment for it, of course, because the doctors would find out who I really am. What I really was. I suppose that I had a year or so left. Maybe two if I was really lucky. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was all my own.
Roy Bruce is about to die. He’s outside the habitat, lying in the cold with little oxygen to breath, and useless legs. This tale is how he got there. It’s a good story, one that would have trilled pulp readers in the 1940s and 1950s. I enjoyed listening to it, however, I would have preferred to know more about life on Ariel than about another casualty of war. Those treehouses and crickets piqued my interest. That’s the kind of details I love in science fiction.
“Dead Men Walking” works very well as a shorter work. It’s well plotted. It begins with a bang and ends with satisfaction. Even though I also greatly admired “The Potter of Bones” and “The Little Goddess” with their highly creative world-building and textured details, they were both novellas that went on too long. “Dead Men Walking” is a novelette, and for me personally, that’s about the perfect length for science fiction. I love science fiction at its shorter lengths, but usually, a short story is too short, and a novella is too long, and novelettes are just right.
However, short stories and novelettes need resolvable conflicts, and all too often in space adventures, that involves killing humans or aliens. One of the aspects of fiction I want to study while reading The Very Best of the Best is how often violence is used as the plot engine. Think about all the science fiction movies and television shows you watch. How many use war, crime, killers, invasions, etc to keep your interest? The conflict in “Rogue Farm” was resolved in death. Violence often tends to make science fiction feel like fodder for adolescent males. For example, how many successful video games aren’t shooters of some kind? By the way, the two novellas had little or no violence.
Like I said in an earlier essay about this anthology, these stories are great reads but usually, they aren’t my kind of science fiction. Creating non-violent conflict in stories is a challenge. Of course, the next story is all about violence.
James Wallace Harris, March 3, 2019