Una McCormack’s 2019’s The Undefeated is a science fiction novella.
After a long and successful career, famed journalist Monica Greatorex returns to Sienna, the backwater world from whence she came. She chooses an interesting time for her return. There have been great changes on Sienna. She observes and reflects.
When Monica was born, Sienna was an independent world. By the time Monica reached adulthood, Sienna had been annexed by the Commonwealth. Her family had been rich and powerful in independent Sienna; it wasn’t clear that they would be able to maintain their position under the Commonwealth. After some setbacks (which included the death of her father), wealth and familial connections to the Commonwealth elite restored Monica and her mother to privileged status. Monica is able to leave her backwater world for fame and fortune in the larger polity.
What happened before she escaped? Monica’s former home town fell into ruin. Annexation led to economic and social disruption. Local authority weakened and the town fell victim to gangsters.
A Jenjer came to town. Jenjer are a caste of genetically enhanced humans who were devised to be natural bondservants. But this Jenjer is different. She has no master or mistress; she’s well-armed and deadly. Salvation for the town? Not really. She’s no friend to the gangsters, but she’s not there to serve the town. The stranger has her own agenda, one that foreshadows tumultuous change for the self-satisfied rulers of the Commonwealth.
Authors have no control over the ad copy on their books. This is not the space opera that Tor advertises. It’s not even an adventure. Or at least it’s not Monica’s adventure; she’s been a witness to some disturbing events whose significance she fully realizes only later in life. If you head into this expecting Doc Smith or Ann Leckie, you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s closer to the book Hammett’s novel Red Harvest1 would have been if nobody in Poisonville had been worth saving and if it the story had been told by a witness years afterwards.
The author suggests that Monica sees herself as “a warrior of words,” “a journalist (who) exposed corruption across the Interstellar Commonwealth, shifting public opinion and destroying careers in the process.” Readers will find a rather different Monica Greatorex on the pages of the book.
She’s one of the elite. She has enjoyed enormous privilege. Her crusades against corruption have never confronted the great crime that underpins the Commonwealth and neighbouring societies. This is, of course, the enslavement of the Jenjers. They are enhanced, yes, but also shackled by their genetics. They will die if they do not receive medical treatments available only to those Jenjers safely bonded to authorized masters.
Monica may be offended by the injustices that she suffered as a child on Sienna. But (as the text makes clear very early on) she accepts Jenjer bondage as entirely natural. She holds the bond on to one Jenjer and, even though she is finally forced to admit that her servant loathes her, she’s not going to free the fellow unless she absolutely must.
As a girl, Monica was more forthright in how she saw Jenjers. A flashback:
That’s what Jenjer were. Property. Investment. Wealth. They existed to serve, and this woman sitting here, doing nothing, unowned, was wrong . Monnie couldn’t say why — she just knew, and her indignation nearly ran off the scale.
What saves the novella from being SF’s reprise of Gone With the Wind is that while Monica is on Monica’s side, the text does not seem to be. Monica is part of an evil society, one that’s astounded that Jenjer (devised to be stronger and smarter than Mark 1 humans) have somehow escaped their bonds and are on the march towards the Commonwealth. The story makes it clear why it is that the Jenjer are so angry. Whatever’s coming for the Mark I humans, they probably deserve it.
Just ignore that sales blurb.…
1: Read the classics, people! Or at least watch Yojimbo.