Most well-known for his excursions into fantasy, magic realism, horror, and all things between, Lucius Shepard’s 1992 Barnacle Bill the Spacer is a notable exception. A space station drama/thriller, the novella nevertheless possesses the writer’s signature style. What it may be missing, however, is originality and significance.
Barnacle Bill the Spacer is set on Solitaire, a station orbiting Mars which assembles long-distance exploratory ships. Earth in ruins, life on the station and Mars is considered a luxury, and is available only to a select few. An exception to the happy, healthy people at the station, however, is Bill, a mental defect who escaped mandatory abortion due to his mother’s position in government. “Barnacle Bill”, as he is derogatorily called, is looked down upon by the station’s community and isolates himself with sweets and porn. In a bar fight in the opening pages, one of the other station dwellers named John defends Bill for reasons he doesn’t understand, and in the aftermath, finds himself offering protection to the slow witted man. The bar fight not the end of the violence, a mysterious cult called the Strange Magnificence leaves the mark of death on Bill’s door one morning not too long after, drawing Bill, John, station security, and local government into the fray. The ship builders of Solitaire are never the same.
As Shepard would again do so well in the later novella Stars Seen through Stone, Barnacle Bill the Spacer features a strongly contentious, unlikeable character. Bill a slovenly, perverted, unhealthy man who does himself no favors by being unrealistically demanding, the reader will find themselves loathing him, yet pitying his limited mental capabilities when reading of his internal battles with the brain implant that keeps him sane. Having his role to play in the fate of the space station, the reader’s patience is rewarded at the conclusion, and more than likely in a fashion they could not predict.
But for as good a job Shepard does describing the scenes and building Bill’s character, a lot remains unspoken for. For one, there is nothing original about the story. Like a walk in the park, it has been done before. Possessing a quotidian feel, nothing is challenging about the premise or its result. Strange Magnificence, for example, is more an option for horror and sensationalism than commentary on any social condition. Moreover, there does not appear to be any worthwhile message beneath the polished surface of plot. The tied-off ending does not fully align itself with the aim of the narrator’s introduction, leaving a sense of emptiness upon the conclusion.
In the end, Barnacle Bill the Spacer is a well-written sci-fi story, but one that is highly conventional. The quality of Shepard’s writing able to pull the story only so far, readers eventually reach a point where they realize that for all the proverbial weight of the exposition and dialogue, there is a notable lack of gravity to the underlying message. Characters that are developed initially eventually turn out to be used only for ulterior purposes, nothing deeper; the plot becomes increasingly implausible; and the ending is noticeably trite—not Shepard’s usual MO. In other words, the novella tells an entertaining enough story, but leaves the reader holding little at the end. For a similar but more focused story, see Allen Steele’s Death of Captain Future. For a similar title character, see Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. And for reasons of similarity that depend only on my gut instinct, see Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.