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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"The Political Officer" by Charles Coleman Finlay

First appeared in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Reprinted (one, a major retrospective), by Gardner Dozois, John Joseph Adams, Alan Kaster, Rich Horton, Sean Wallace. Up for Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards.

Part locked-spaceship mystery, part thriller, part space-opera, part science-fictional sneak-peek into a possible secular-religious society--"The Political Officer" has much to intrigue the reader.

Maxim Nikomedes is a Political Officer aboard a small spacecraft, which means he shares some of the commanding duties aboard the ship with the captain and Lukinov, an officer of Intelligence. Intelligence has a rivalry with the political officers. Maxim's job is to seek out a suspected traitor, whom initially we are led to believe Maxim doesn't know who it is.

During Maxim's investigations, he is almost strangled, so he needs to find his would-be assassin and the man conspiring to get the people of Jesusalem in a war.

Analysis with spoilers:
I said "secular – religious society" as their society goes by the name of Jesusalem, a play on the name of Jerusalem and perhaps a mixture of Jesus and Salem, where Puritans burned supposed witches – suggesting that maybe a witch-hunt is underway. This has impacted the ship crew members in that only one is female, a victim of every faction in her society. However, no one appears especially religious or shares any religious convictions/thoughts, especially our POV character. Usually, there is also a religious hypocrite or two in the upper echelon of any religious organization. We do not witness this in this particular tale, though. Perhaps the narrator himself is the hypocrite although it is difficult to say without knowing more about Maxim's religious convictions.

The POV character, Maxim, is not particularly likable. While he does prevent a war, he busts into rooms, uninvited. He interrogates only the female ensign so viciously. He sets her up to take a fall. He promises she'll be okay in the end although necessarily she will have problems with her record. Granted, she was to be used by the other side, and they intended her to take the fall of a murder, far worse. However, Maxim does not appear moved by her impossible plight. She tried to follow three different orders on a ship with three different leaders.

Does the mystery play fair with the reader? Sort of. Initially, it says, "Now it was time to shake them up again to see if he could find the traitor he suspected." All true. Although we are in his point of view, we do not learn whom he suspects. Finlay gives immediate misdirection: "He brushed against Kulakov on purpose as he passed by him." This leads us to suspect Kulakov, but it isn't Kulakov, and it isn't clear why he would brush against Kulakov purposefully except to be a pain in the butt.

Clearly, this is a psychologically complex tale. The reader feels no particular admiration for any character. The sequel, "The Political Prisoner", which appears to share with this story the distinction of being Finlay's most popular and critically acclaimed stories, may shed light on mysteries still left behind about the character psychologies and societal customs--Maxim in particular.

F&SF did an interview about the stories with Finlay here. Whenever he finishes the series, it might be kind of a big deal. Let's hope he gets cracking on it.

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