240 years into deep-space, the ark-ship Argos carries the remnants of humanity towards Tau Prius III, their new home and humanity’s salvation. But unlike the Argonauts of legend, they are far from heroic. Generations of boredom and genetic tinkering have left the human race less intelligent and prone to relieve the tedium through costumed orgies, urine-based gang warfare and, of course, the old stand-by of drug abuse. For Bucholz’s protagonist – the cynical, world-weary and refreshingly ballsy Laura Stein – and her friend and workmate Bruce, their thrill of choice is kleptomania and creative house-breaking.
As the Argos nears its destination and the human race tries to get to grips with the idea of life on terra firma, Laura sets out to find out why one of her subordinates on the maintenance crew was brutally murdered. In doing so, she stumbles across a ship-wide conspiracy which could have devastating consequences.
Bucholz’s main success in this sci-fi conspiracy thriller is his exploration of ethical conundrums. No one is entirely good in Severance. People make decisions based on self-interest, or the greater good. The protagonists are far from angelic, though we root for them all the way, while the antagonists, at times, can seem terrifyingly, icily reasonable in their logic. The subject matter is certainly dark, with genuinely palpable threat hanging over the anti-conspirators, but the earthy, sometimes crude, banter of Bruce and Laura, and the perspectives of the supporting characters, provide enough comic relief to cut through the potential for grimness in the existential crisis that the Argos undergoes in the course of the novel. Meanwhile, the flashbacks to Laura’s ancestor some two centuries previously, who also discovers the same conspiracy, brings an extra thread of urgency and pathos to the work.
Bucholz should also be praised for his world (or, in this case, world-ship) building. The development of society and the way it has adapted to life in space, and the effects of certain events in Severance, are all well thought out and logical, where some authors fall down by writing what they think is impressive rather than what works. Buscholz, at times, is cynically dystopian, with a real 2001-A-Space-Odyssey-meets-Idiocracy vibe suffusing the story, but he can seldom be accused of being unrealistic.
Overall, this is a fine debut novel, and if you are in the mood for an absorbing and gritty conspiracy thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, then you are in for a treat if you pick up Severance.