BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Astronaut Chaz Eades’ fraught awakening onto a mission to Tau Ceti unfolds a web of mystery, deceit, and emotional tension.
PROS: Intriguing set of interlocked mysteries; strong character grounding and focus; emotionally resonant.
CONS: The story is missing a beat on the protagonist’s emotional and social path.
BOTTOM LINE: An evocative, emotional, character-focused novella with enough crunch to satisfy space travel SF grognards too.
Originally published in 2010 as part of the novella collection in Alembical 2, Second Chance has, in resonance with its title, a second chance to engage with readers in an ebook format from Book View Cafe.
Chaz Eades awakens aboard the Cassiopeia. Or, to be more precise, a clone of him, grown and full of his memories, awakens aboard the ship built for man’s first voyage to the stars, specifically Tau Ceti. But why does the crew mistrust him, and why did he wake up days after everyone else? Why does it feel like a test and not like a full awakening with all of his memories and knowledge, anyway? Why even, with the substandard equipment and technical problems does the loss of the antenna receiving data and information from Earth seem so odd? The answers for Chaz many mean everything for him and the small crew of the Cassiopeia, 12 light years from home.
The emotional journey of Chaz is the heart and soul of Second Chance and provides one of the multiple meanings of the title. Readers will strongly identify with Chaz’s plight, beliefs and weaknesses. This is no easy task; Chaz does have some real flaws as a person and identification with him is tricky. However, the story humanizes him even with those flaws, and gives Chaz a chance to grow and change, just as it does the small set of characters around him. The mystery of his awakening, seemingly solved early, is far more complex than it first appears, and in a neat bit of storytelling, hooks into the rest of the narrative in a satisfying way.
The prose on a technical level is excellent. The ease with which the writer describes events — the turmoil of the protagonist, the details of life aboard Cassiopeia, the scientific discoveries — are all handled with equal facility. While the real focus of the story is on the characters and their relationships, the backdrop of the ship is far from being indistinct. Having a technical mystery in addition to a social and emotional one allows the prose to shine on multiple fronts.
David Levine is a short story writer’s short story writer. With several dozen stories, awards and nominations under his belt, his work shows an intense and focused execution of the craft at shorter lengths. Writers, and readers interested in the craft of short stories can learn a lot by studying his work. While Second Chance is a novella, it feels like a story that grew to a novella and keeps a lot of its short story crispness and tension, rather than being a shorn or partially born novel that only made it to novella length.
I highly enjoyed Second Chance. If I had been aware of the story in 2010, I would certainly have given it a Hugo award nomination at the time. Second Chance does deserve a second chance for readers, and I recommend it to any and all short-fiction genre readers.