Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski

What to do with malevolent people? It is a question every society, no matter how big or small, must answer. Kill them? Incarcerate them? Let them go free? If incarcerated, in what conditions? Bare minimum? Luxurious? Average standard of living? What rights should they have? Education? Roof? Communication with the outside world? Time in nature? Three meals a day? Medical facilities? Daylight? And beyond, in the society they came from, does the threat of punishment in fact reduce malevolence? A short, bare-bones novel compared to the size of the subject matter just described, George Zebrowski’s 1998 Brute Orbits attempts to address these very questions.

It is undoubtedly the opinion of much of civilized society that the bad apples should be separated from the good. Taking this premise and running with it, Brute Orbits posits a near-future scenario where the world’s convicted criminals are packed aboard asteroids rigged up as living modules and sent hurtling into solar orbit. The groups segregated to some degree, one asteroid is home to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other violent criminals. Another is a mix of men and women convicted of white-collar crimes. And still another is teenagers and other delinquents who have broken the law in rash moments of youth. And there are other asteroids. The convicts told the length of their orbits before sent spinning into space, the isolation has a different effect on them all. But does it affect their humanity?

The writing style as dry as a bone (which requires some acceptance if the novel is to be engaged with properly), Brute Orbits nevertheless attempts to address the largest questions humanity faces regarding crime, punishment, and the value (or lack thereof) therein. Through a variety of scenes and scenarios aboard the asteroids, Zebrowski attempts to relate the reactions and concerns of convicts—people truly sealed off from the rest of humanity. Some scenarios are convincing: Indeed, like island communities, there is a coming together of the group even as much criminality persists unchecked. And others are not. The scene wherein a man who has killed multiple people commits suicide as a result of a peer intervention requires a significant suspension of disbelief to be fully accepted as an ideological setpiece. Requiring further suspension are Zebrowski’s solutions to human malevolence (hint: it’s only in a science fictional step away…). I await with bated breath.

But regardless whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Zebrowski’s slant, Brute Orbits is food for thought. Working from such predecessors as Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop and Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station”, Zebrowski attempts to have the next word in science fiction isolation, imprisonment, and punishment from an ideological standpoint. There are readers satisfied by the novel as is, but for me it requires greater fleshing out—an additional 75-100 pages to provide more than pastel color to the variety of viewpoint characters, and thus be truly representative of humanity, not to mention deliver its solutions with more conviction.

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