AUTHOR INFORMATION: Bradley P. Beaulieu is a winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award, while his short story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat”, was voted a Notable Story in the 2006 Million Writers Award. Other stories have appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future, and several anthologies from DAW Books. The Winds of Khalakovo was his debut novel.
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Stephen Gaskell is a freelance videogame script consultant and speculative fiction writer whose work has been published in many venues including Writers of the Future, Nature, Interzone, and Clarkesworld. An alumnus of University College, Oxford, he is also a graduate of Clarion East, and a member of the Villa Diodati Writers Group. He is currently working on his first novel, a post-apocalyptic thriller set in Lagos, Nigeria.
OFFICIAL BLURB: It's the middle of the twenty-second century. Earth's oil and gas reserves have been spent, but humankind's thirst for energy remains unquenched. Vast solar mining platforms circle the upper atmosphere of the sun, drawing power lines up from the stellar interior and tight-beaming the energy back to Earth. For most of the platforms' teeming masses, life is hard, cramped—and hot. Most dream of a return Earthside, but a two-way ticket wasn't part of the benefits package, and a Sun-Earth trip doesn't come cheap.
Kawe Ndechi is luckier than most. He's a gifted rider—a skimmer pilot who races the surface of the sun's convection zone—and he needs only two more wins before he lands a ticket home. The only trouble is, Kawe's spent most of his life on the platforms. He's seen the misery, and he's not sure he's the only one who deserves a chance at returning home.
That makes Smith Pouslon nervous. Smith once raced the tunnels of fire himself, but now he's a handler, and his rider, Kawe, is proving anything but easy to handle. Kawe's slipping deeper and deeper into the Movement, but Smith knows that's a fool's game. His own foray into the Movement cost him his racing career—and nearly his life—and he doesn't want Kawe to throw everything away for a revolt that will never succeed.
One sun. Two men. The fate of a million souls!
FORMAT/INFO: Strata is 70 pages long divided over four titled Parts/ chapters. Narration is in the third person via Kawe Ndechi and Smith Pouslon. Strata is a self-contained novella. December 22, 2011 marked the e-book publication and was self-published by the authors. Cover art provided by Doug Williams.
ANALYSIS: Bradley P. Beaulieu is an author who doesn’t exactly need an introduction, with his debut The Winds of Khalakovo, he definitely garnered attention from many readers. He had also attended the Clarion Workshop which was the common ground with his fellow collaborator Steven Gaskell. The kernel of the story came to Brad in 2008 and he wanted to explore more of the story however he needed someone with a more SF-tuned style to help him with it and so he turned to Steven whose works reminded him of Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer. They originally planned it to be a short story of around seven thousand words however the end result after three years was a novella of more than thirty thousand words.
The story begins rather quickly and introduces the reader to the racing team of Kawe Ndechi and Smith Pouslon, who as a pair shine spectacularly by combining Smith’s experience and Kawe’s natural racing brilliance. He’s a winning racer and a couple more races will get him off the Sun’s mining platform on a one way ticket back to Earth however Kawe’s not really aiming for just a win, what he has in mind will not only clash with Smith’s age-worn wisdom but also his heart felt desire. However if the thing is to be accomplished for the rights and lives of the workers on the solar mining platforms, it will only be possible when these two come together to pool their exuberant talents. The racing storyline runs parallel to a worker-management battle which has been silently raging for the past few years and Smith is one such casualty. He however does not wish for Kawe to emulate him in this unfortunate regard but fate and the Movement will not let Kawe go. Such are the travails which lie forth for both these determined racers whose skin color might be from the opposite ends of the color spectrum however the racer spirit is a kindred feeling which unites them with far more stronger bonds.
The novella idea is quite a simple and yet elegant one, in the forthcoming century with Earth’s gas resources being almost finished. The human race turns to the sun and so technology is developed to harness its power, this technology is not without its perils as the people who leave to work on the mining stations cannot afford their way back unless they gather a significant amount of money thus the birth of the racing pods and all the shenanigans which go along with it. Basically the story then simultaneously straddles the twin genres of SF and thriller whilst also touching upon some human social issues, the highlight of the tale being its superb pacing. At no time in the novella will the reader feel any pangs of boredom as the tale is carefully crafted and twists are inserted to make sure that the reader does stumble in his/her assumptions (I know I did with my thoughts in regards to the climax). The characterization is competent delivering the vastly different views of both protagonists and there is no disconnect in the cohesiveness of the plot. Despite it being written by different authors the seams of the collaborative effort are not to be found and this was a major plus.
Points against the plotline are that the technology and social spectrum described in the book aren’t really explored beyond what is told to the reader and some might find this to be the fly in their ointment. I personally didn’t mind it as it was not the focus of the story. The length of the story while delivering a nice compact read also robs the reader of getting to know the characters & the world they inhabit to the fullest degree.
CONCLUSION: This SF collaboration is the first between these two creative minds, however simply based on what I read. I think they ought to collaborate regularly and for longer pieces of fiction. Strata is a twisted, fast-paced SF novella for readers who yearn to read newer stories, Beaulieu & Gaskell set out to write a short story about racing on the sun but have delivered a very good novella which manages to be much more than what its blurb promises, very much recommended!