“Four Kinds of Cargo” by Leonard Richardson
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
The first thing to strike me about Leonard Richardson’s “Four Kinds of Cargo” had nothing to do with the story, unfortunately. It’s been a while since I last reviewed Strange Horizons and somewhere along the line they started incorporating embedded advertisements into the text. You know the things – highlighted words that pop-up adverts with links if you mouse over them. They make for a truly annoying reading experience. Either the damn things are now an unavoidable part of the internet or else Strange Horizons needs them in order to cover operating costs. Either way, all I can do is complain about them and then accept them. It’s not a problem Astounding had to deal with back in the old days.
I mention “the old days” because Richardson’s story has a very old-fashioned feel to it. “Four Kinds of Cargo” takes place aboard the small space ship Sour Candy, a smuggler led by a captain with a strong sense of ethics. It might not be a mistake if this description makes you think of Firefly, any more than it would be if the multi-species crew made you think of Star Trek. The prose is workmanlike in a Robert Heinlein sort of way and contains liberal sprinklings of coolant cycling pipes, laser cutters, kiloshifts and the like, and the setting, a galaxy divided between the warring factions “The Extension” and “Fist of Joy,” could hardly be more familiar.
If the story seems derivative on the surface, it’s because it’s meant to. The captain of Sour Candy chose her career path after a childhood spent watching a popular television series about the noble captain of a smuggling ship. So did her administrative officer. They frequently mention what the fictional captain would do in certain situations. “Four Kinds of Cargo” is a science fiction story about science fiction characters basing their lives around a science fiction story and its characters. It’s metafiction in a neat, innocuous disguise. There’s a twist – which I’m not going to reveal – in the plot that adds another entire layer of fictional referentiality. The story is like a whip-smart kid pretending to be dull. Its major drawback is an unavoidable one – the prose simply isn’t very good. But to succeed as the kind of multi-referential system it sets out to be, I don’t think this story could have been written in any other way. The cleverness of the premise and the recognition of what’s been pulled off both explain (if not demand) and make up for the lacklustre prose. This one made me want to grimace as I started reading it; by the end I wanted to applaud.