For our final entry in the shorter (short story and novelette) category, this week we have “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly. He has published other stories with the same characters, including “Tourists” in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse 4. Here are some earlier comments on the story:
Lois Tilton, Locus Online
A sequel. Mariska’s mother had her cloned to fulfill her own ambitions to work in interstellar space, so Mariska escapes by signing on as crew of an insystem asteroid bucket.
But the crew’s boss bears an old grudge against her mother and takes it out on Mariska. Then his error loses the ice from which the ship’s lifesupport is electrolyzed, leaving them with insufficient reserves of oxygen to make it back to base.
This typical space-problem story is actually an antidote to the typical romance-of-spaceflight scenario as Mariska scrubs mold and the rest of the crew escapes boredom in drugs and sexual fantasies. The episode works well on its own and has the right hard-SF feel to the space scenes. But while the ending is cathartic it lacks true closure, as we see that the direction of Mariska’s career is still undetermined.
Abigail Nussbaum, Asking the Wrong Questions
Back into space we go with James Patrick Kelly’s “Plus or Minus,” a sort-of retelling of “The Cold Equations” that reconsiders and modernizes that story’s core assumptions beautifully, and shows the rest of the ballot how to have a conversation with your genre’s past without getting swallowed up by nostalgia and sentiment. The protagonist is Mariska, a low-ranking maintenance worker on a long-haul spaceship several months out of port. The first half of the story is a closely observed and extremely uncomfortable portrait of the relationships that develop among the ship’s crew, and particularly Mariska’s troubles with her boss, Beep, who resents her for being the daughter/clone of a famous space explorer. Beep harasses and bullies Mariska, whose intelligence and strength of will aren’t quite enough to compensate for the fact that she is completely under Beep’s power and has no way of escaping him until the ship arrives at its destination. These segments are tense and horrifying–the claustrophobia of space travel magnified and made so much worse by the claustrophobia of sexual harassment. In the second half of the story, an accident leaves the ship without enough oxygen to make it to its destination. Where “The Cold Equations” treated this scenario as one of blinding certainty–a simple mathematical calculation that yields only one result–“Plus or Minus,” as its title indicates, performs a more fuzzy calculation. The answer, in both cases, is the same–the ship’s remaining supply of oxygen will suffice to bring some of the crew home but not all of them–but in Kelly’s story there are many more variables–how long will the rescue ship take to arrive? How much oxygen can the crew conserve by sleeping and performing as little physical activity as possible?–and a recognition that a margin of error of even a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death. A few elements of the story don’t quite work, mainly Mariska’s resentment of her mother and her determination not to go into deep space, which feels like part of another story–presumably 2009’s “Going Deep,” which also features Mariska–that Kelly doesn’t quite have the room to properly elaborate on here, but the ending is so perfect–simultaneously recreating the harsh brutality of “The Cold Equations” and complicating it with human compassion and guilt–that these seem like minor quibbles.
Stories about the routine of interplanetary space defy the relatively low likelihood of seeing such things in the next generation or so. “Plus or Minus” is another kind of throwback story that got a Nebula nomination this year, much like another Asimov’s story, “Sultan of the Clouds”. We see people born and bred for space travel slogging through the routine of cleaning mold off the spaceship and overseeing robots doing cargo work. Spaceships can be ugly and purely functional. The crew are not the highly trained and selected astronauts of today, but teenage interns. And they face the classic will-we-make-it-before-the-air-runs-out danger when an accident happens during a run.
It’s fun to read, too. Kelly uses the story to tell of teen dangers of today, like creepy people creating animated photomanips of girls they are stalking, or getting deeply involved in a realistic dream-scape (OK, that one is mildly ahead of today). All the things SF is supposed to do. No new ground, more like nostalgia, but I still liked it. 3 stars.
Mark Watson, Best SF
The story was a tiny bit of a struggle for me, as at 50+ I’m not that engaged in teen angst story elements – I’d be more interested in the story as seen through the adults in the story. And I have to own up to a touch of concern about reading a story including teenage sexuality elements : absolutely fine with the explicit ‘sexuality’ of Kij Johnson’s ‘Spar’, so it’s not the sexuality per se, but I wasn’t at all too sure about reading the bit where the teenage girl fantasises about a fellow crewmember getting up close and personal.
Jo-Anne Odell, Tangent Online
When the crisis comes, it’s more a relief than a buildup. Finally, there’s something happening. Beep implicates himself as the villain, revealing that he was the one behind the fakes. Richard is innocent. Though Beep plays the hero, sacrificing himself for the crew, it’s not enough. Mariska is forced to use her own special gift in a bid to help herself and the others survive.
The most interesting aspect of this story revolves around Beep, the leader who fostered division in an environment where cooperation is essential to survival. Unfortunately, it’s an aspect of the story that goes largely un-probed. He remains a clown, almost as ridiculous as his name.
Another mixed bag of opinions, some rather more complimentary than other stories we’ve examined so far. Your thoughts?