"Shipbreaker" by Paul Di Filippo: An Appreciation by Jack Mierzwa
Not always, of course. More often I read things because I know I like a particular author, or because people have been raving about a particular story or novel online. It's just sometimes, sometimes . . .
Sometimes you just gotta have spaceships. You know?
This impulse has inevitably led to disappointment. After all, there's a reason why choosing a book based on its cover art has gotten such a bad rap--just like there's a reason why choosing a mate based on their physical appearance is considered shallow. But sometimes it's not enough to hear the cliché; sometimes you have to learn the lesson firsthand for yourself. Sometimes you have to make the same mistake over and over and over and over . . .
Like those glossy color prints they always have on the covers of Asimov's and Analog? They always seem to pick pictures of spaceships orbiting distant worlds, battling in the cold depths of space . . . inevitably, the magazine itself contains plenty of fine stories, but the spaceships are few and far between. And typically disappointing.
I know this, but I still do it anyway. I did it with SCI FICTION . . . I did it a lot. Rockets, airships, pyramids, minotaurs! Mad scientists with pulp-fiction names! Vampires, aliens, ice cream! Hey, I like ice cream. Who doesn't like ice cream?
But you know, that was the weird, wonderful thing about SCI FICTION . . . I could choose a story any way I wanted, and it didn't matter. There were disappointments, of course: when I tried reading stories sequentially, I began noticing months where everything was fantastic, followed by months where I didn't really like anything. But all those stories I picked out based on their titles? All those rockets, pyramids, minotaurs, and ice cream shops? Worth the price of admission, every last one of them. Or they would have been, and I would have gladly paid, but it turned out that admission was free.
I wanted, I really wanted, to say something deep and . . . thoughtful about Di Fillipo's "Shipbreaker". For me, this story has come to represent an entire idea, a type of story that might be dying out now--a type of space opera that there was never enough of to go around in the first place. But every time I try to find the words to talk about this story, I seem to end up embarrassing myself. I start gesticulating a little too wildly, I start talking a little too loudly . . . then I
find I'm grabbing the person I'm talking to, shaking them by the shoulders and shouting in their face, something along the lines of:
"DUDE! This story is SO AWESOME! SHIPBREAKER! THEY BREAK SHIPS! SPACESHIPS! THEY BREAK APART SPACESHIPS FOR SCRAP! And these are big spaceships! Really, really big spaceships! Think BIG! No, bigger than that! Big, BIG, all-of-Manhattan-plus-most-of-the-Bronx BIG! They take these monster, luxury-starliner spaceships to this planet, THEY THROW THEM INTO THE OCEAN, and they have a BIG party. Then they all go out in boats, swarm up onto and over and into the starliner, and then they START RIPPING THE THING APART! It takes MONTHS! YEARS! It powers the entire economy of the planet! These ships are THAT BIG! Oh, and there are these super-intelligent god-like beings with floating clouds of super-intelligent nano-servants, and they have this complex caste system, and members of the higher castes often kill members of the lower castes like they're swatting at so many flies, and the ships are filled with mysterious alien artifacts, and you can pick up exotic diseases from working in them, like the protagonist has this silicate eczema that's constantly flaking off his hands . . . . Oh, and did I mention that THEY BREAK APART ENORMOUS SPACESHIPS AND TURN THEM INTO SCRAP?"
Sorry. I'm, uh, I'm doing it again, aren't I? Sorry about that.
Anyway, if spaceships are the medicine you think you need to cure whatever ails you today, then go read "Shipbreaker." You won't be disappointed.
Link to story.