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Fortress at the End of Time is a brilliant throwback to classic science fiction

A multilayered and thoughtful short novel

When a soldier is stationed at the furthest human outpost in the galaxy, he’s confronted with an incredible challenge: staying alive in a meaningless existence, hoping to one day be promoted to a better location.

Joe M. McDermott’s new short novel The Fortress at the End of Time is a thoughtful investigation of how people cope when their lives are put on hold, and a brilliant analysis of technology, faith, and the point where they meet. The Fortress at the End of Time is set in a far future in which humanity has expanded across the galaxy and battled a vicious (and unexplained) enemy. The war is long over, and humanity has secured a few hundred planets. Each planet is colonized via “ansibles” which supply and populate Earth’s growing colonies.

The ansible is a long-established science fiction fixture created by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1966, usually represented as an instantaneous communication device. But McDermott’s ansible is essentially a replicator, which allows for the instantaneous duplication of an object or person.

The story begins when Captain Ronaldo Aldo, an astro-navigational officer for Earth’s military, confesses to committing a terrible (but unnamed) crime. The rest of the novel covers the events leading up to the confession, beginning with Aldo’s graduation from War College and his assignment to a dead-end planet — or, rather, his clone is posted to this bleak dump, called the Citadel, in another corner of the galaxy.

The original Aldo remains on Earth, where he presumably has a normal life. The new Aldo has all his memories, but while he’s a new person, he’s burdened by his predecessor’s record and actions. He will remain on the Citadel forever, but he hopes by doing a commendable job, he can get a clone of himself (complete with all his memories from the Citadel) created on a more interesting planet. Aldo despairs: the Citadel is the furthest colony from Earth. If he can’t prove himself worthy of ascension, he’ll remain in this banal posting for the rest of his life. If he succeeds, he will be permitted to step into the ansible once more, and move to a new planet.

Day in and day out, he maintains a decaying space station and contends with a dysfunctional, boring crew. Suicide rates are abnormally high at the Citadel, and corruption is rampant.

This short novel hinges on the agony and anxiety of being trapped by the status quo. The desire to break free from the predictable is present not just in relationships, but settings. Earth is in a sort of pause, waiting for the return of its vague enemy. The station and planet Citadel are waiting for an ice comet to provide the next step of a centuries-long terraforming process.

Aldo himself is emotionally frozen. On the Citadel, he’s unresponsive to a potential romance with a crewmate. If he does manage to send a clone of himself somewhere interesting, he doesn’t want it yearning for someone he left behind.

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The other major theme in The Fortress at the End of Time is the unexpected consequences of technology. Humanity has developed amazing tech: colonies far out in the depths of space, ansibles that teleport people across the stars, and starships that can take down unknown enemy spacecraft. Yet each advancement carries unusual problems. Ansible trips load their passengers with the burden of the past: the duplicates have to contend with their original selves’ memories and experiences, while forging their own futures.

McDermott is careful to show that science and technology don’t have all the answers. A monastery on the planet siphons off military deserters who are stuck in moralistic quandaries, questioning the role the military plays in expanding humanity’s footprint in the galaxy. The deserters are a worthy foil, posing heavy questions for the crew: when people are reborn through the ansible are their souls transported, too? Do they have hope of redemption in future lives?

The Fortress at the End of Time is an essential read, and feels like it’s a throwback to the era of classic science fiction from authors such as Frank Herbert or Ursula K. Le Guin, but never dated. McDermott takes a slow, thoughtful approach to this multilayered little book, playing out plotlines over years, and paying full attention to how the story’s events affect the characters, rather than the other way around. His hard-science details and logical explanations should satisfy more scientifically minded readers, but they are accompanied by a moral core that sticks long after the final page.

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