John Steinbeck’s The Pearl is a powerful story as well as commentary: nothing brings out the greed and violence innate to humanity like the scarcity of valuable goods, that is, in a capitalist society. Supply and demand determining the market, as well as thieves’ interests, when a rare item becomes available, rest assured somebody wants it, morals not always a scruple in acquiring the object. Winner of the 2012 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, Paul McAuley’s novella The Choice is a sci-fi retelling of Steinbeck’s story (I don’t think intentionally), the title falling into place along the way.
The Choice is set in a Britain vastly different than what we currently know, yet familiar for the manner in which humanity persists. Environmental destruction and global warming having taken their toll, the icecap in Greenland has collapsed, flooding the island nation, and as a result Lucas and his best friend Damian have grown up along a coast far different than maps currently describe. Islands, channels, and mud flats the norm, the former farms and fishes to support his mother, while the latter works at his abusive father’s shrimp farm to get by. Aliens having come to Earth in the aftermath of the flood, they traded environmental technology for rights to the other planets in the solar system. One of these advanced ocean cleaners (called a ‘dragon’ by the locals) washing ashore one day, Lucas and Damian head to the beach along with others from the area to see for themselves what the the mysterious object actually looks like. Their lives are never the same.
Like The Pearl, The Choice is a simple but engaging story. The titular choice (which I will leave for the reader to discover as it does occur some way into the story) does indeed operate as the crux. Such moral choices having been described in stories thousands of times in the past, and probably thousands of times in the future, however, it is two other elements which make The Choice noteworthy. The novella’s strongest points are the descriptions of setting and the interest-building manner in which McAuley unwraps the boys’ tale.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars featured a section wherein Martian settlers returned to Earth, there to discover the Antarctic ice cap had melted, leaving the world aflood. One of the characters visits Britain and finds a waterworld scenario. Richard Cowper's quality White Bird of Kinship also using a similar premise, in McAuley's story boats have become the main mode of transport, people subsist on whatever they can scrape up, and salvaging the flotsam that was domestic life before the catastrophe is one way to get by. Lucas and Damian doing what they can with what little they have, so too do their parents, neighbors, and people living around them walk the tightrope between good societal behavior and competition for what little there is. A situation non-existent in times of affluence, life’s decisions become all the more numerous and difficult in times of scarcity.
In the end, The Choice is a good novella that rolls smoothly along, telling a quick, absorbing tale. The concept of the story has been used many times before, but the superficial layers—the setting and story motivator—are at least unique to McAuley’s Jackaroo world. Style and mode reminiscent of a Bruce Sterling story, Lucas, Damian, and readers will find that valuable commodities are a two-edged sword.