“Salvage” by Tracy Canfield (13483 words)
This story takes solid aim at space opera and hits on all counts, weaving a plot around technology and humanity, family and loss, greed and discovery. It stars Buffalo, a cyborg copied from the mind of a man named Ypsilanti, a pilot and a conman who had succeeded and failed his way across the galaxy, sometimes up and sometimes down, but always more or less the same. Fifteen years ago, after a liason with Wren, a mechanic, Ypsilanti had left pieces of himself behind. One in Buffalo, and one in a son he had never known. Now he’s back with a new plan and a new angle, and Buffalo and Wren are pulled once more into his troubles, which are only getting worse.
The setting of the story is interesting, in the orbit of a gas giant, in a small settlement of people who mostly make their living running salvage into a strange area known as the Drift, where hostile AIs fight a never-ending and ever-evolving battle amongst themselves. Wren runs her business with Buffalo by her side, but their relationship is that of friends, neither of them quite over the strange nature of their relationship to Ypsilanti and neither of them quite over [SPOILERS] the death of Prentiss, their son. I love the way the story handles Buffalo’s nature as a copy, in some ways being Ypsilanti and in others being nothing like him. They share so much, and yet Buffalo’s time has been spent as a nurturer and as a guardian, and that relationship has shifted him away from the person that Ypsilanti is. It’s a distinction that’s made so much clearer when the two interact, because they can read each other, because they can see the differences in each other. And while Ypsilanti might want to chalk that up to Buffalo being a cyborg, I think the story does a great job showing it goes deeper than that.
I think the story also does a great job capturing a sense of fun while tempering that fun with deeper and darker emotional beats. The hole in the center of the story is Prentiss’ death and the guilt that Buffalo feels about it, the way that it has defined Buffalo and Wren’s relationship. It has left them static, stuck, and if there is one good thing from Ypsilanti’s arrival it’s that they both get to see that Buffalo is not him. That maybe they can move forward and not have to be so tied to that painful past. I also love the way the story reveals the Drift and what goes on there, how it is the stage for this great tragedy that has happened but also the place that Buffalo has to return to in order to face his past and himself. That he is there with Ypsilanti and a new issue that he has nothing to do with adds a new layer to the mix that allows him to reckon with his feelings in a way that makes him examine who he is as separate but related to Ypsilanti.
And it’s just a really fun story, with a nice bit of relationship building and world building and I might be a bit upset [SPOILERS] at the offhand killing of one of the characters, especially with how she related back to Buffalo and him being a cyborg, but otherwise I felt that everything had a good weight, great pacing, and brilliant ending. An excellent read!