Podcast Story Review: “Boojum”, by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

May 10, 2011 in General Topics

Remember, if you’re ever at the dockyard of some used spaceship emporium, and you’re given the choice between a massive battlecruiser, a polyalloy explorer shuttle, or a living spacecraft that tries to get your attention with glowing tentacles, I hope you’ll give the third option serious consideration. Because it’s probably given you serious consideration. This review covers Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s “Boojum”, as heard on the Drabblecast. It’s a story of a pirate gal and her buddy, a living spaceship with a heart of gold. Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.

Between the two of them, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s work has been published just about everywhere; in fact I’m told by a contact on Pluto they just had a piece picked up for Revisionist Labeling, Pluto’s predominant science fiction magazine for methane breathers everywhere. So they don’t need much of an introduction. On the Drabblecast, the duo’s biggest legacy is the Mongoose, which ran amok in the story of the same name and went on to win Drabblecast’s mega beast death match competition (yours truly contributed beast descriptions for one year’s competition, by the way), and picked up the Drabblecast People’s Choice Award for 2010, to boot.

Lovingly detailed, this latest story, of a group of system-based star pirates, focuses primarily on one Black Alice – a reluctant raider – and her relationship with her enigmatic consort, a living ship called a Boojum. The Boojum is like a scorpion fish on steroids, plus some obligatory alien enhancements (titanic size, multiple eyes, and manipulating tentacles). When the Boojum comes calling your ship: surrender, unless you want to be eaten. Actually, even if you do surrender, things don’t get much better. See, the pirates helming the bioship basically let you choose between joining them, or joining the Boojum’s stomach contents.

The name escapes me of the ship itself (Ginny?), so forgive me, but the details of the beast require the reader to of course suspend some disbelief (fine in spec fiction). In this case, I really wanted more detail of the actual interface method between the boojum and its pirate overlords. The average reader isn’t going to care about any of this, but I found myself constantly torn away by the tale to wonder – isn’t the humidity in there terrible? Wouldn’t this whole experience basically be a series of really nasty, painful surgical implants for the boojum to deal with? If a door slides open, is it metal or a sphincter? What does “engineering” inside a living ship look like?

Lacking too, unless I simply missed it, is a background description on how these pirates managed to wrangle a critter that can cut straight through ship hulls itself. Perhaps the boojum are inherently peacefull, but one can still imagine a scene at least comparable to a bunch of wooden longboats tearing down on a sperm whale. Have fun with that, boys and girls, because I’ll wait with the main ship and root you on. A gold coin to whoever spots a boojum in the cloud nursery? I digress.

Black Alice has to deal with a number of nasty things on the pirate vessel, including a ruthless captain and seized cargo that is sure to make your skin crawl. I should point out that the entire array of voice work here is headlined by one Naomi Mercer, whom Norm Sherman, editor, should continue to hire over and over again. She’s amazing at what she does.

So in a conveniently-timed moment of emergency maintenance that Black Alice goes out to perform, the real owners of that stolen cargo show up and all hell breaks loose. Then we’re given a terrific build-up of tension and an ending that we might see coming a little down the road, but whose slight predictability we don’t care about at all. The story is like driving down a scenic road at night with the lights of a carnival in full display on the horizon. It’s all beautifully lit by the writers’ prose; we line up happily for our share of cotton candy, and a spin on the rollercoaster closes out the story nicely. Sure, we knew basically what to expect, but that’s why we lined up and paid admission. Doesn’t diminish the experience.

Overall, it’s a solid tale, and despite my stickler’s points I have to be honest and say I enjoyed it. I think Elizabeth and Sarah might want to consider a cross-over tale that could link up the mongoose with the boojum, and the supporting cast of characters in both. Yes, that’s “supporting cast”. When you have critters like this in short fiction, everyone knows who the real stars are. And the boojum can take you out there to them, if you’ll just give it a chance.

As always, stay tuned.