Story of the Week: "The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay

My new story of the week is "The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay from the August 2008 Fantasy and Science Fiction. A sequel to Finlay's 2002 story "The Political Officer," which was reprinted in Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twentieth Annual Collection, this story picks up the tale of Maxim Nikomedes, a political officer/secret agent for the fundamentalist Christian world of Jesusalem. In the last story, Max's work as a double agent almost cost him his life; in this story, it causes him to be sent to a reeducation camp on his harsh and austere homeworld.

Jesusalem barely supports human life and since its settlement the colonists have been terraforming the planet. However, since the Christian sects of this world reject most advanced technology, this terraforming is done by hand, by prisoners dragging baskets of algae across the planet's burning sands in an attempt to create topsoil. Finley's descriptions of the harsh reality of a reeducation camp--which is modeled on those infamous gulags of the old Soviet Union--are simply awe-inspiring, as are his descriptions of what people will do to survive in such a death-inducing environment.

However, the most amazing aspect of the story is Max himself. As a political officer, Max has a unique view on why all of this is being done to him. For example, when prisoners are killed as a way to teach everyone to stay in line, Max is both horrified at the sight and appreciative of the political skill of the man doing the killing. Likewise, he is now seeing the fruits of his own political work. For example, decades ago he created a derogatory term for a group of genetically altered humans; now Max hears people bandying this term around as they hate these altered people with an outsized passion. Max is vain enough to take pride in this outgrowth of his work--and old enough to also be ashamed. It is in this conflict between what Max has done in the past, and the changes he is undergoing in the reeducation camp, which makes the story such a winner. This story will likely be reprinted in some of the "year's best" anthologies, and I highly recommend it to all readers.