The Undefeated by Una McCormack
Monday, June 3, 2019 at 7:43AM
TChris in Science Fiction, Una McCormack

Published by Tor.com on May 14, 2019

The Undefeated is a novella that imagines a future form of slavery and its consequences to those who feel entitled to enslave others. The story is largely a character study that hints at, but fails to explore fully, a couple of larger issues.

Monica Greatorex, a woman of inherited means, has at the age of 60 decided to return to Sienna, the world where she was born. Most people are fleeing the periphery, hoping that the core worlds will remain secure in an impending war, but she finds a ship that will take her, along with her jenjer, Gale. The prevailing fear is that “the enemy” is coming soon, seeking justice.

What is a jenjer? Who is the enemy? The two questions are not immediately answered, but characters drop hints suggesting that the questions are related. In the beginning, we know only that Monica’s companion Gale is a jenjer, that Gale is “high functioning,” and that he requires medication, the details of which Monica has never bothered to learn. At about the midway point, the reader will begin to discern at least partial answers to the two key questions. The reader also learns why the jenjer need medication. Una McCormack leaves it to the reader to fill in a wealth of other details, which is a bit troubling in science fiction, given that details are  central to the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief.

The story flashes back to Monica’s childhood, when she saw a jenjer behaving as a free citizen — and the first time she saw how well an armed jenjer could defend herself. She also realizes for the first time “what it means to be alive because of another person’s whim” — a sensation with which jenjer live every day.

At some point after becoming an adult, Monica learns the truth about an incident that occurred in her childhood. The truth gives rise to realizations about larger truths concerning the desire for retribution that might be sparked by unfair treatment. Whether those lessons are good lessons — that is, whether retribution can really be equated with justice — is largely left unexplored.

The tone of The Undefeated is melancholy. Monica has seen a lot, was once famous for the reports she filed on the impact of the Commonwealth expansion on the poor and their children. In the beginning, it is not clear whether she will find a way off Sienna, now largely deserted, nor is it clear that she cares.

Monica is one of very few characters and the story is very personal, but as a lengthy character sketch, The Undefeated isn’t entirely satisfying. Monica is explored in some depth, but perhaps not in sufficient depth to make the reader care about the decision she makes as the story reaches its resolution.

The larger social issues surrounding that decision are underdeveloped. It is a bit late in the day to write science fiction with the theme of "slavery is bad" or "treating people unfairly will come back to bite you in the ass" unless those themes are developed in ways that readers haven't seen countless times. McCormack’s prose is polished and the novel’s background is interesting, but story would have benefitted from a stronger attempt at worldbuilding. I usually complain that writers should cut unnecessary words from their books, but this one would have been improved by adding enough words to give the story the substance it is missing.

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