BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Children endowed with godlike powers for the purposes of terraforming a planet decide that they know better ways of using them.
PROS: Great premise; continued sense of foreboding; Evokes lingering emotions.
CONS: Somewhat predictable; the technology behind psyforming is never clearly explained.
BOTTOM LINE: A contemplative story that dwells in your mind after you are done reading it.
Joe Hill’s novella, Gunpowder, is about a group of genetically engineered young boys who are terraforming a faraway planet for human colonization. The children are “psyformers”, gifted with the ability to change reality. The effort to psyform is draining; it involves complete concentration and is characterized by glowing, blue eyes. The boys’ sole caretaker is Elaine, who also acts as their surrogate mother. But can she, with no power of her own, keep the boys’ abilities in check?
Young Jake (young but perhaps the oldest of the group) is perhaps the most powerful of the thirty children and his creation of knifegrass is a marvel to behold in the otherwise desolate dunes of the barren landscape. But it’s also quite deadly since its blades are razor sharp. This is the first intimation we have that the boys are capable of destruction as well as creation, and also when Elaine first begins to realize that the she can perhaps no longer control the boys’ godlike powers. Boys will be boys and they use their powers in a sort of unspoken competition to alter reality to their childish whims. (Reality is described as merely “a manuscript, recorded in rocks, gasses, DNA”.) Their intent is not necessarily malicious – especially Jake who is otherwise shown as wiser than the other boys. But the ultimate result is the artifact of immature minds holding too much power.
Such power is not available to all the boys: Charley is an outcast who lacks “The Talent”. Actually, he does have the ability to perform small telekinetic tasks, but his power pales in comparison to that of the other boys. Charley uses his meager abilities to build a wall of stones around Castle-on-the-Rock, the name for their habitat. Charley builds the wall for protection, but won’t say against whom, an answer that begins the impending sense of foreboding that pervades the story. The wall itself also serves as the metaphorical barrier between Charley and the other boys who otherwise taunt and tease him for being different. This endears him towards Elaine. Charley is a reminder of the boy’s lost innocence.
Gunpowder is a story that increasingly builds dramatic tension as it swoops along. The continued sense of foreboding comes to a head when a visitor arrives and the directive of the terraforming project changes, perhaps not so unexpectedly. Hill’s plotting may not be very complex here (I’m not entirely sure of the technology behind the psyforming, for example), but his writing does elicit feelings of sympathy and the turn of events is engrossing, if inevitable. It’s interesting how there is no clear antagonist in the story, merely victims of one form or another, and yet the author manages to create sizable dramatic tension nonetheless.
Despite the presence of an adult, it’s hard not to think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Some of the same themes prevail and the story evokes the same emotions in the reader, making Gunpowder a contemplative story that dwells in your mind after you are done reading it.