“The Undefeated” by Una McCormack – an excellent Science Fiction novella

A beautifully crafted novella about unconscious privilege, ubiquitous slavery and their consequences, seen through the eyes of a memorable, if not always reliable, narrator.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the way Una McCormack slowly built up my understanding of the central character, Monica Greatorex, both by showing me how she sees her current and past self and by letting me see the things about her to which she is mostly blind.

Monica, in her sixties, is returning for the first time as an adult, to her childhood home on Savanah, a periphery world, once proudly independent and now part of the Commonwealth. She is travelling with a Jenjer companion that she paid a great deal for. She is travelling against the flow, with most people fleeing (although they would deny that description) to the core worlds.

Much of the novella is spent understanding Jenjers, why people are fleeing, and why Monica is heading in the opposite direction. Much of this is revealed in the childhood memories Monica immerses herself in, often recalling with shame the thoughts and actions of her childhood self.

The novella seems to me to be about the corrupting effects of slavery on a society whose wealth depends on the work of slaves but whose sense of worth is maintained only by denying the humanity of those slaves. It looks at how blind the wealthy and powerful become to the reality of their situation, how hatred and the need not just for justice but for vengeance builds in the enslaved and how neither side will willing acknowledge this.

Although the story is set in a far future in which humanity has expanded its reach to many planets, the tone of the story seems to me to be Edwardian. This unusual juxtaposition of setting and tone made me look harder at what was going on.

From the beginning, I saw Monica Greatorex as one of those wealthy, independent, Edwardian women who travelled the world on a bicycle, absorbed in collecting butterflies, eschewing the conventions of Society but still benefitting from the protection of wealth and privilege that they so took for granted that they were unaware of it. I think this is clear from the first sentence of the novella:

MONICA GREATOREX HAD, in her sixtieth year, resisted acquiring dependents but had (in that easy way we may observe in the rich wherever and whenever we are) accrued considerable wealth without particular effort on her part. Money begot money, and this miraculous alchemy had eased Monica’s passage through life, a life which she would be the first to admit had been blessed—with adventure, travel, lovers of all persuasions, and, above all, the liberty to do whatever she chose. Looking back over her six decades, she was satisfied that she had not, on the whole, squandered either her talents or her resources.

As we can see, Monica thinks well of herself. She sees herself as a warrior with words whose writings from the frontlines of Commonwealth expansion have helped to awaken a social conscience in Society and shape policy. She is alone and likes her solitude, provided her comforts are arranged for her by her Jenjer.

As she stands in the what’s left of the town she was raised in and confronts childhood memories through an adult’s eyes, she readjusts her picture of herself and her situation, finally allowing herself to acknowledge what is going on, how she has contributed to it and what it is going to mean.

I ended the book liking her a little more and admiring her courage and her dignity.

I was very impressed with this novella. I hope that it does well and the Una McCormack gifts us with more work like it.

As an aside, this novella is one of those where I’m left wondering if the publisher didn’t understand what they were publishing or didn’t have the courage to market it for what it is. Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Una McCormack’s The Undefeated is a thrilling space opera adventure featuring a no holds barred heroine on the front lines of an intergalactic war…
She was a warrior of words.
As a journalist she exposed corruption across the Interstellar Commonwealth, shifting public opinion and destroying careers in the process. 
Long-since retired, she travels back to the planet of her childhood, partly through a sense of nostalgia, partly to avoid running from humanity’s newest—and self-created—enemy, the jenjer.
Because the enemy is coming, and nothing can stand in its way.

This isn’t a space opera. Monica is not a “no holds barred heroine”. She’s a grown woman finally coming to understand that she was once a privileged little princess and to understand and be ashamed of the sources of that privilege. To me, that makes “The Undefeated” much more interesting than a pocket-sized space opera.

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