Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead is a novel with its heart in the right place. Improving cultural understanding and the development of self the subjects under discussion, it was unfortunate that Card used a super-emo man to literally and figuratively drive the demons of discrimination and repression from the scene. Though aiming at a wildly different theme, Hilbert Schenk’s 1979 novella The Battle of the Abaco Reef, unfortunately, has the same general problem: great destination, poor road chosen to arrive there.
I normally summarize the premise of a story at this point in a review. However, as the novella’s opening paragraph indirectly accomplishes more, I will allow it to speak for itself:
The fall wind blew steadily from the east, dead across Elbow Cay, and the big, vertical-axis wind machines, running synchronously in the steady breeze, gentled the island with their hushahushahusha, a giant snoozing in the lowest frequencies. Susan Peabody toyed with her coffee and half watched the tiny, jewel-like TV screen at her elbow, thinking of nothing in particular. Or, really, much in particular such as the department, and the university, and the screwing, literal and figurative, she had taken from that bastard… But that was already six months past, and how big a plum would it have been anyway, in a riotous, unheated Boston?… Susan, a forty-year-old, tall, thin woman, her brown hair cut short and severe, her thin lips pressed thinner still, thought to herself, hating herself as she thought it: I have a good face, high color, a straight nose and a strong chin. I have tits and my legs are long. Oh, for God’s sake!
Neither the most appealing of intros or the most polished writing, Schenk does relax a little in the pages which follow, letting The Battle for the Abaco Reefs tell a story of some small interest. From the opener, he dives headlong into US political fragmentation, global resource problems, Communist Cuba, and the potential tech has in war, particularly with the Bahaman island of Abaco where the story is set. Reminiscent of Bruce Sterling’s short fiction, Schenck, unfortunately possesses none of the vision. Drug enhanced intelligence, vectoring, and political cycles all well and good, what hurts is the obvious lack of insight into the overarching politics of it all. The knowledge in and between the lines obviously gleaned from big media rather than study or research, we are left with an optimistic voice clothed in simplistic, i.e. unrealistic, affairs of state, nothing remotely applicable, or at least possessing the possibility of being applied, in our reality.
Difficult to fault Schenck for intention, the manner in which events play out thus requires a lot of the reader if relevancy is at stake—a fact not helped by the melodrama. (“’…oh, Frank. The children. I can’t make them fit. I just can’t!’ And she wiped her eyes on her napkin and stared at her plate.”) Schenck perhaps jumping in waters over his head, suffice to say events seem more fanciful imagination than anything else. The catastrophe that would be unleashed due to the solution he proposes to the story’s conflict is enough to make any environmentalist cringe—an aspect compounded by the fact Susan claims to enjoy diving in the reefs of Abaco.