Strange Horizons, March 19, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
“Things Greater than Love,” by Kate Bachus, is a major conundrum of a tale, a mixture of elements intriguing, powerful, tense, awkward, overdone, and amateurish. It reads like the first draft of a story that’s going to be excellent, but in its current form it makes me wonder about things I shouldn’t be wondering about when reading an interesting piece of published fiction – like the editorial process of the publisher and the writer’s revision techniques.
Of course, these wonderings, being extraneous to the story, have little place in my review – except to point out I shouldn’t have been wondering about them at all. I should have been gripped by the premise, which is a good one. A rescue team on an alien planet is recovering an injured eco-tourist from the side of a volcano on the verge of eruption. The team is hauling the unconscious casualty along the cliff face, racing against the oncoming lava – you can’t get more exciting than that, right?
Unfortunately, this exhilarating scenario is interrupted by inconsistent writing and an awkward structure. The prose is spotted with conspicuous repetitions, extraneous clauses and run on sentences, and unnecessary adverbs. Even the most intriguing element of the story poses its own problems for the narrative: one of the rescue team is a non-human, a dragon-like creature called Drake. Drake’s translated dialog is set off by double angle-brackets, a device which breaks up the momentum of what would otherwise be a riveting sequence.
The narrative is further derailed by sections of exposition (we don’t need to know when and how Drake’s species was contacted) and flashback in the middle of a powerful scene in which the human rescue workers attend to injuries Drake sustained during the rescue. What’s fascinating in this part of the story is the contrast between the feelings and actions of the rescue team and their very restrictive rules for interacting with their alien colleague. It’s like a health-and-safety bureaucracy run amok, and the behaviour of the rescue team hints, perhaps, at the meaning of the title (at least, I hope so, or else the title is another part of the story I don’t get), the camaraderie of a team, even a team including a completely unknown species, performing a terrifying and indispensable job. But that camaraderie is unknowable to a bureaucracy, and the team is punished for what, by any human standards, is a triumph in performing a treacherous job and in establishing intra-species understanding: two of the bulwarks of speculative fiction.