Sometimes I don’t even realize I need a change of pace until it happens. After months of science fiction that was either slow and ponderous, or fast on a galactic scale (where everything is slow anyway), a story that takes place in a single city, on a single day, choke-full of action, biohacking, collateral damage and unapologetically awful characters was just the kind of a wild ride I’ve been missing. Quandary is an irreverent, fun, and fast-paced novelette that I couldn’t drop until I finished it.
Quandary Aminu is a young woman who goes through life high on drugs and sex. To afford her life, she works the odd jobs as a hired muscle for various gangs. After a job goes sideways, she gets blamed, and the mob boss unleashes a bioengineered humanoid killer, the Butterfly Man, after her. The killer has an adaptive brain, which learns and retains knowledge across its jobs, even though his physical shell lasts for only a day. Over time, he had become an unstoppable killing machine, and Quandary has little chance to survive the 24 hours before the killer’s body dies again.
She quickly heads home to pick up the only thing that may help her: the disembodied head of her father, which can still communicate with her. She encounters the Butterfly Man, but manages to run away from him, and together with her father they hatch a plan to capture the killer, stuff him full of sedatives and wait out the requisite day. As they try to procure the sedatives, however, they run right into the killer’s lair, where they are confronted by him again, but Quandary manages to subdue the creature. At that point, Quandary changes her mind and instead tries to convince the Butterfly Man to kill the mob boss instead. After some bargaining, the killer agrees, and they pay a visit to Quandary’s former boss. This plan doesn’t survive the meeting with the enemy, either, as the mobster has another Butterfly Man waiting for them.
I must admit I’m not too familiar with the biopunk niche. I have always looked for the stars, and the few times my interests strayed to Earth I was stuck with old-fashioned hacking, military action, or politics. As such, I was quite surprised how well I understood the context and the internal logic of this story, and how much I enjoyed it. Some of the credit goes to the relatively linear story, but most of it can be attributed to the compelling character of Quandary. She is unapologetically despicable. She’s a foul-mouthed smartass who seemingly doesn’t care about the risks she’s taking and putting others under, she lives for drugs, and the relationship with her father’s head is so bad it’s bordering on unrealistic. She does not experience any redemption arc, either. And yet, she’s the perfect vehicle to carry the narrative.
When I come across such foul characters as Quandary, I like to compare them to Jazz from Any Weir’s Artemis. I love to hate Jazz; she may be my most disliked protagonist in science fiction. She may not be as rotten as Quandary, but Jazz’s character contrasts with the much better personalities of her sidekicks who try to help her at all costs. This story does not have any good people. Of those who are named, maybe one or two are ambiguous, the rest is just as rotten as Quandary. This removes the striking contrast in personal morals that defined Jazz, and it also gives a context that suggests that Quandary may be the product of her environment. Consequently, I find her abrasive and reckless personality compelling, not off-putting.
The worldbuilding is complementing Quandary’s character, but it’s not that well developed, and it certainly lacks the same degree of consistency as the interpersonal relationships do. In particular, violent fight scenes with collateral damage don’t seem cause any reaction from anyone else, save for the vague concern that police may turn up eventually. The only intriguing part of the worldbuilding is the origin and functioning of the Butterfly Man, and I would certainly love to learn more about it. Even so, I appreciated the tight focus on action, while avoiding most of the exposition. This choice ensured that this story was a wild ride, which I enjoyed from the very beginning to the end.
This novelette can be read for free here.