The Fortress at the End of Time – Joe M McDermott

“We are born as memories and meat.”

On graduating from military academy, Ensign Ronaldo Aldo discovers his posting is to the last outpost in human space – the worst fate he can imagine. He steps into a cylinder, sees it fill with gas, and then goes back to his life. At the same moment, a new clone of Aldo wakes up on the edge of the galaxy.

This is the premise of the book: that people no longer travel between the stars, instead through the ‘ansible’ network they send the information needed to fabricate a copy from organic material at the other end. Which is kind of cool, but that’s all you’re going to learn about that, disappointingly.

The story is told in the form of a confession: we know from the outset that Aldo has done something deserving of punishment. His tale goes back to his graduation, then describes his life aboard this orbiting space station, where the biggest danger is suicide, better to show what drove him to whatever terrible transgression he has committed.

Fortress’s strength is the world-building. The bleak despair comes across well, and the setting feels remarkably plausible. The weakness, however, is the characterisations. In particular, our lead is something of an idiot. As his tale progresses – slowly – we still cover several years, but without it feeling like Aldo ever learns anything. He’s a stickler for the rules, he doesn’t gel well with his comrades – and none of that seems to change in the decade or so he’s on board. Hmm.

It also felt like many of the plot threads just didn’t amount to anything. The beginning failed to have much of a purpose, in my view, and really a lot of the rest feels like scene-setting for the sake of it – as I said, this does work in creating a reality, but it’s a bit frustrating in terms of the story. As is the foreshadowing of several things that turn out to be next to nothing, really.

Ultimately, I’d suggest very little happens over the course of the book. Still, I didn’t hate it: there’s a lot of interest to be had thinking about the headspace of a clone, or that of someone who trains for a life the clone will lead, not themselves (disappointingly, little is revealed about what happens to Aldo 1). Life on the edge of the universe is unlikely to be glamorous, and that’s captured well here – even if it doesn’t make for the most fascinating of plot lines.

NetGalley eARC: 272 pages
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 18th January – 1st February 2017

My rating: 6/10 – interesting, but neither gripping nor wholly satisfying

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