Jonathan Nicola

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Jonathan Nicola

Jonathan Nicola’s book reviews

In Burn we get a glimpse of far-future humankind, with tech that borders on magic, but there's also a little mysticism. Or at least luck. That future is merely a backdrop, however; the actual conflicts, the personal and the political, are very human, and told from the point of view of Spur, someone we can understand. His acestors decided to abandon the tech and go back to a simpler life. While Spur knows that the "upside" exists and is filled with tech marvels, he also knows that that technology at some point must undermine the humanity of those who wield it.

Of course he knows that; he's been taught that his entire life.

Spur is given a chance to reach out to the universe. It is a guilty pleasure, an idle conceit as he recovers from injury, one he knows his friends will not approve of. He pokes at the universe, almost randomly. But then the universe answers back. The fuckin' universe answers back. Luck, it's just luck. The event that triggers this story (or the part of the story we see here), is one of near-fantastic luck. It would be difficult to swallow, except, well, luck is a real thing.

James Patrick Kelly does an admirable job of avoiding judgement; there is no absolute "right" and "wrong". While characters make judgements, the author does well to not color the debate with his own leanings. One person says "terrorist", another says "martyr." "Us" and "them" gets tangled. And there are subtle elements, as well. Spur is married, but the marriage is on the rocks. There are the usual reasons, but perhaps he was in love with someone else all along.

One quibble: if pukpuk had been capitalized like most organizations of humans are, I would have parsed the opening sequence (which is pretty hectic) more cleanly.

Like all human conflicts, not everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of this story. The immediate conflict is resolved in a satisfying way, and the final choice Spur makes rings true. There are still large questions outstanding, about the future of the planet and the clever indigenous species. But Spur has had a taste of what the upside has to offer, and in the end this story is about him, and the choice he must make.

Our protaganist is Spur, a Gary Cooper of quiet guy who is a volunteer firefighter from a small village. He has been severely burned trying to save his brother-in-law who was evidently a "torch" working for the Pukpuks. He has nightmares about his brother-in-law. How does he tell his wife after promising to protect him. Firefighting seems to be a losing battle, his wife is divorcing him, and he really is confused, not really understanding the momentous events going on around him or how to respond.
To help healing, he contacts the "upsiders" who are very strange technologically sophisticated off planet humans inhabiting a large number of settled worlds. They provide a robot doctor bot to heal him and come to Walden to check out what is going on. Big doings for the simple farmer Waldenites who have proscribed most technology in their simple lives.

The middle of the story seems slow, taken up with character development, at first seeming like a soap opera, but designed for the reader to get to know the characters well. And you will get to liking and identifying with them.

A fire ensues, threatening his village, Spur tries to control it, doubting his abilities, but using his training until help arrives.

During the chaotic fire and the firefighting, secret agendas are revealed involving the the off planet upsiders, Spur's wife and the Pukpuks which lead to a very interesting and surprising ending.
01/07/2021