Strange Horizons, September 19, 2011

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Strange Horizons, September 19, 2011

“A Box of Thunder” by Lewis Shiner

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

Pacifism is an easy creed to follow when there’s societal order, when your country is not embroiled in a war and when there’s enough resources to comfortably supply everyone around. Non-violence is a great idea then.

The problem comes when there’s not enough of anything to go around, when there’s a war on and you’ve got something the bad guys want. Pacifism then is a much more dicey prospect. If you stick to your non-violent principles, it’s more than likely you’ll become the least violent corpse in the mass grave. If you fight back, then you violate your ethical principles. Fighting might be the least worst alternative if you factor in wanting to live.

In “A Box of Thunder,” by novelist Lewis Shiner, we’re presented with a global economy that has gone down the proverbial hole thanks to a giant methane burp in the Russian hinterlands, man-made climate change, and rising ocean levels. All in all, not a good medium in which pacifism can flourish.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the city of Guanajuato in the mountains of Mexico is full of people who have signed a vow of non-violence. That vow is soon put to the test with the arrival of Los Zetas, a combination drug cartel and government.

Alex, a former ex-patriot of Guanajuato, has returned home to forge the city of his birth into a defensible cradle of non-violence, from which he hopes will grow a new civilization from the ashes of the old. He’s brought money, ideas, and more people. He’s also brought guns.  A lot of guns.

Taking it upon himself to violate the vow of non-violence, Alex recruits unstable city residents (he considers stable city residents to be unable to pull the gun’s trigger) to wield the guns and try to save the town through violence. We’ve seen this sort of situation before, but it’s what comes next that makes this story shine. (No pun intended.)

Shiner does a great job in building this damaged earth and showing us how pacifism might actually be attempted in such a world. The story is filled, for the most part, with great characters. I thought the character of Billy could have used a bit more work, but that was a minor complaint and relatively easily overlooked.

The only thing that bugged me about the story was the use of << instead of  ” to denote dialogue. Not sure why they went with the << instead of quotation marks, but it certainly didn’t work for this reader.

Still, those are small nits to pick. Another good story from the September issue of Strange Horizons. Go check it out.