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“We let them turn us into a race of customers.” (p. 109)

The trading station William S. Burroughs—just off the planet Saturn—is the only space station in the galaxy where human beings can engage in an unequal trade (raw materials for sophisticated technology) with the species of the Galactic Confederation. On the space station, order is maintained by a fleet of positronic robot-detectives—“the customs officers of this borderland between Earth and the Galaxy” (p. 23)—who break the monotony of their existence by cosplaying historical and fictional figures, from Zarathustra to Raymond Chandler.

It is an arrangement that works to the relative benefit of all parties concerned, until the arrival of prisoner Makrow-34, a member of the Cetian species, possessing psi powers that enable him to alter “the shape of the Gaussian bell curve that describes the statistical probability of any number of events” (p. 37) (or, in simpler terms, override the laws of physics, albeit with uncertain consequences). Makrow-34 promptly escapes from the William S. Burroughs, along with two accomplices, leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake, and imperiling the fragile balance of power that keeps galactic peace between the species. It is now the task of Raymond—a robot-detective who models himself on Raymond Chandler—to track down Makrow-34 in the solar system and bring him to justice. A daunting task at the best of times:

So not only did I have to find a needle in a haystack, blindfolded, I had to grab it and pocket it—knowing that if I tried the needle might stab me, the hay might burst into flames, a roof beam might fall onto my head, I might be charged by a bull that hadn’t been there a second before, or I might be turned into a frog in the blink of an eye. (p. 39)

Raymond knows, of course, that he cannot accomplish this task alone. So he enlists the support of Vasily, the “only other known Gaussical” (p. 43) (fortuitously, a prisoner on the William S. Burroughs), and thus begins a wild and perilous chase through the marches of the solar system.

For readers acquainted with Yoss’s very particular imaginative landscape—exemplified in his previous translated novels such as A Planet for Rent and Super Extra GrandeRed Dust will feel like a familiar homecoming, sprinkled with the dust of something new. The overarching frame, once again, is the unequal, neocolonial relationship between human beings, and the economically and militarily dominant members of the Galactic Federation (the delightfully named Colossaurs, the Grodos, and the Cetians—who look exactly like they sound—all make their return):

But haven’t they refused to hand any of their greatest scientific and technological discoveries—hyperspace travel, artificial intelligence, immortality serum, self-induced regeneration, stuff like that—over to earthlings, even though they easily could? Well, true. By the same token, they haven’t exterminated or enslaved humanity, which they could also do. And they’ve at least maintained trade relations with Homo sapiens. Under their own rules, of course. (p. 22)

In this frame, Raymond—and his fellow robot-detectives—occupy an uneasy, liminal space. Built by the Federation, but of humanoid form, they are neither one nor the other: they resemble the very human beings whose disadvantaged position in the economic order they are meant to reinforce and keep in place, should it ever become necessary.

This is not, indeed, the first time that Yoss’s stories have been told from the perspective of misfits. In Super Extra Grande, for example, Jan Dongo, the protagonist, is a rare sufferer of the “Gonzalez Syndrome”—weightlessness-induced excessive physical growth—that turns him into an outcast, with a very particular task (being a veterinarian of galactic giants). Neither Dongo nor Raymond are heroes: they are doing their jobs, as part of a system they do not particularly believe in, or have any great reason to invest into. As Raymond refers to himself, with barely veiled irony:

Naturally, I’m a pozzie too. In other words, not a human being but one of those robotical abominations, the blasphemous entities, neither alive nor dead, vilified daily by the unregenerate terrestrial preachers who still think everything was better before the aliens came along. (p. 21)

Through the eyes of such protagonists, Yoss shows us the galaxy as through a glass darkly, neither majestic nor terrible, but just a series of power relations that need to be negotiated—a distinctly earthy frame to what is otherwise a soaring space opera.

A Yoss story would, of course, be incomplete without biological grandeur (Yoss is himself a veterinary biologist, apart from being a punk rocker). In Red Dust, it takes life in the character Slovoban, an old smuggler experiencing “hypertrophic osteopathy” (or an excessive elongation of the body), as a result of a prior duel with Makrow-34 gone horribly wrong:

He was hardly more than skin and bones. His ribs, having lengthened and softened through some teratological process, seemed to have folded and interwoven themselves around his shrunken torso, within which his heart and lungs, freed from the struggle against gravity, also seemed to have shrunk. The intravenous feeding tube emerging from his neck gave me a clear idea of what had happened to his stomach. Beyond this, he was pale to the point of translucence, and his arms, long and noodle-thin, were quietly folded in impossible angles, as if they had more joints than any normal human limbs—or were a veritable showcase of fractures. (p. 73)

Although Slovoban’s initial presence is a shock to Raymond (“... such extreme variations on the human biotype were categorically banned ...” [p. 74]), Slovoban swiftly becomes an integral element of the story. Indeed, one of the signal elements of a Yoss story is the almost Borgesian way in which it messes with our carefully arranged systems of taxonomy and then sustains the disarray throughout the narrative, without further thought. There are too many things in heaven and earth, Yoss’s stories always tell us, for us to hold on too tightly to our verisimilitudes.

Red Dust also has the remaining elements that make up a Yoss story: careful—but smoothly integrated—nods to science (“... the clouds of sublimated water vapor were so thick, the explosion even made a sound for an instant.”), epic space battles, dazzling technology, inter-textual references to classic science fiction novels (“‘... sometimes I dream while I’m awake.’ ‘About electric sheep?’” [p. 97]), biting observations on colonialism on a galactic scale (“‘We let them turn us into a race of customers’” [p. 109],) and wry humour that prevents both the writer and the reader from taking anything to seriously at any point (“‘It oughta be against the law for bad guys to have better weapons than the good guys, don’t you think?’” [p. 104]).

But above all else, Yoss’s galaxy is a galaxy without judgment. That is not to say that his characters are necessarily amoral, or that the stakes don’t really matter: in a spectacular climax to the novel, Yoss compels us to pick a side and root for one party (it turns out that the future of the galaxy literally hangs on it, even though it may not be the most likeable of galaxies); but remarkably, he does it without sketching either heroes or villains. There are only people—species—trying to make their way in a galactic order that they had no say in structuring, and that does not concern itself with their fate. For all its derring-do, space battles, and hard-bitten characters, Yoss’s canvas is a canvas of compassion, perhaps summed up best by Slovoban:

“I dreamed of a space in space for those who had no space.” (p. 76)

Gautam Bhatia is an Indian speculative fiction writer, and the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. He is the author of the science fiction duology, The Wall (HarperCollins India, 2020) and The Horizon (HarperCollins India, 2021). Both novels featured on Locus Magazine's year-end recommended reading list, and The Wall was shortlisted for the Valley of Words Award for English-language fiction. His short stories have appeared in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and LiveMint magazine. He is based in New Delhi, India.
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26 Feb 2024

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