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BOOK REVIEW: Severance by Chris Bucholz

REVIEW SUMMARY: Bucholz has written a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story about a generation ship bound for another planet, and the secrets it contains just might destroy the ship and everyone on board.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When Laura Stein discovers a plot to split the generation ship in two (killing half of the passengers before they reach their new planet), she stumbles upon a vast conspiracy involving martial law, genetic manipulation, and political intrigue.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Bucholz keeps us guessing at every turn, offering clues about the conspiracy at just the right times; pacing, humor, and dialogue are spot-on.
CONS: Some scenes are too heavy on the technical detail and too light on character development.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for an addictive story that explores issues of human colonization, genetic manipulation, and the vagaries of human nature, you need to read Severance.

It’s been over two hundred years since the Argos, a generation ship, left Earth, bound for a new home (Tau Pruis III). Now, you might suppose that the people on board have somehow progressed beyond the violence and intolerance and hatred practiced on Earth in order to have survived for this long on a ship in the middle of Nowhere, Space, right? Yeah, well, not so fast…

In Severance, Bucholz takes us on a roller-coaster ride of spaceship technology, genetic manipulation, and politics as dirty and shameful as anything you can find in the news these days. Although we’re never really told why humans left Earth, or even how they decided who would get to leave, we do know that by the time the story begins, many of those on the ship are either listless, really dumb, or both. They form vomiting clubs, dress up as horses, and do all kinds of other “interesting” things to stave off the intense and mind-numbing boredom that comes with shooting through space on a pretty uninteresting ship.

Good thing the Argos is near its destination, and it’s time for the ship to start decelerating. Easy, right? Just apply the brakes. But of course it’s not that easy. Enter Laura Stein, a “canned baby” who was able to overcome the stigma of her “unnatural” creation to become a successful member of the ship’s maintenance crew. She also has a hobby- sneaking around in the ducts and vents. Her friend Bruce has the same hobby, only he also has sticky fingers.

When Laura starts noticing a strange pattern in maintenance requests, together with an unexplained murder of another member of the maintenance crew, she starts asking questions. Just before she can connect the few dots that she has, though, all hell breaks loose. The captain of the ship, Helot, has forced the civilian government into hiding and initiated ship separation: in other words, he tries to split the ship in half. Apparently, a generation before, the higher-ups on the Argos realized that, due to course corrections, the entire ship wouldn’t have enough fuel left to successfully decelerate to Tau Prius. A smaller chunk of the ship, though, would be able to do it.

Eventually Laura, Bruce, and their friends learn that the military has been quietly moving civilians into the half of the ship that will be set adrift. The deposed mayor, a shady character himself, convinces Laura and several other intelligent Argosians to rally behind him and retake the ship. And then, on top of everything else, Laura learns that this weird series of letters that pops up in her field of vision sometimes is actually a marker for a data gene, a bit of code written into her DNA by the doctor who created her. The message it contains? They’re gonna split the ship in two! The plan, then, has been decades in the making. It’s up to Laura and Bruce to stop the insanity and convince the captain that the Argos can, in fact, make it to Tau Prius intact. If they can’t, there’s always Plan B…

Bucholz tells this, at times nail-bitingly tense, story with the kind of deft humor and irony that makes you laugh out loud. The swear-laced banter between Laura and Bruce, Laura’s jaded perspective on life, and even the narrator’s detached irony make the story highly entertaining. What struck me the most, though, was how Bucholz sets up this tale of an awe-inspiring, courageous trip to settle another world and then peoples it with humans who will throw themselves off of high places just because they’re so freaking bored. Nobody on the ship is noble or larger-than-life. In fact, a heavy dose of cosmic radiation a couple of generations back severely damaged many people’s DNA, and gene-tinkerers tried to repair the damage, while also making it so that the majority of the population would become docile and obedient. Hence, a general “dumbing down,” from which only a handful escaped.

There were times throughout the story when I could have done with less detail about the ship’s innards and the reasons why the first attempt to split the ship was so unsuccessful. Also, the jump between the ending and the epilogue seemed too great- I had many unanswered questions that should have been answered.

Overall, I enjoyed Severance and Bucholz’s style, and I look forward to reading whatever he writes next.

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