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In the fiction writer's bag of tricks there's a surefire technique for garnering sympathy for a character: show them reading something. You may know nothing else about your audience, but you're guaranteed that they, too, are also reading something.

Captain January, main character of The Lucky Strike, is a reader; has been his whole life. This is the source of his trouble. We see early on his sense of empathy, his ability to put himself in the other fella's shoes. This is an important skill necessary for reading comprehension, but Captain January is fighting a war, and empathy is not in high demand, and that's gonna cause trouble.

This is alt-history, and you might expect this clear reader stand-in to be your proxy through a gritty fantasy, a sort of peacenik Lest Darkness Fall. But The Lucky Strike, having grabbed your empathy for a fellow reader, doesn't use it for easy gratification; it uses it to put you through hell.

January spends the middle of the story stuck in his own head, tormenting himself with the reader's toolkit he developed reading the Saturday Evening Post. His skill at tying together stray bits of symbolism, guessing and second-guessing plot twists... he can work rhetorical magic like nobody's business, but it's not actually helping him. In true alt-history fashion, fate has conspired to make January the lever-man at the fulcrum of modern history, but can he change anything? The human mind with its churning and planning and self-justification... it's just another unreliable piece in the machinery of history, which is dominated by accidents and errors.

The story's brilliant final metaphor offers a clue: maybe the best we can do is minimize our own complicity. Robinson suggests this more explicitly in his own essay A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions, which is worth checking out if you liked The Lucky Strike. But another lesson of The Lucky Strike is: all these little, random decisions add up. Anyone who's thought "they'll just get someone else to do it" might take courage from the idea that "they" might have already tried and failed to find someone willing to do it.

Leonard Richardson has a taste for adventure. His first novel, Constellation Games, is published by Candlemark & Gleam. To contact him, send him email at For more about him and his work, see his website.
Sumana Harihareswara is senior technical writer at the Wikimedia Foundation.
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4 Mar 2024

Sometimes among the fish and crabs, we trawl squid and octopus, or little sharks, all added to the pots. Sometimes it’s a fish person, a thing we cut free and do not talk of, pretend we never saw. Today, it is part of a god.
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