"Volunteers" by Alex Irvine
Alex Irvine's novelette "Volunteers" is a first person journey into the memories and thoughts of Wiley, a young man responsible for four hundred and eleven colonists aboard a spaceship. Running from a failed settlement where most of the colonists have succumbed to a mass neurosis, this is their last chance to make their mission of survival a success.
The ship is piloted by Evelyn, an alien navigator and the source of their faster-than-light travel. But Evelyn needs human companionship to keep her focused and on-task, and not just any human; she needs Wiley. In exchange, in her virtual reality womb she is everything Wiley craves–mother figure, helpmeet, friend–just like she was to Wiley's father, her volunteer companion on the previous journey. It is this seductive intimacy that made Wiley's father neglect the spaceship's life support system, resulting in the death of over a thousand of the original colonists, including Wiley's mother.
There's a fragmented feel to Irvine's prose. He takes us on a hopscotch journey through Wiley's childhood–the pivotal moments of his development and the revelations a young man has whose father is both societal hero and villain. It's an immersive narrative technique that brings the reader deeply into Wiley's consciousness. Additionally, it succeeds in providing a distinctive portrayal of various incarnations of dementia. We see through Wiley's eyes the first colony spiraling into destruction as it yearns so much for the simple, saccharine 1950's (a subtle authorial jab at a resurgence in retro, pulp-style SF?), that they enter in a mass state of delusion so potent they kill in order to maintain it. We undergo the revelations of a son learning about the shortcoming of his obsessive father. And finally, we see Wiley's struggle to maintain his own sanity while embraced in Evelyn's womb.
"Volunteers" is engrossing and reflective.