Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time might be a little bit genius, but I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. It’s got a great classic sci-fi sensibility if, but I’m generally not one for classics. It’s a novel that, while short, is often boring, but intentionally so and in a way that mostly works if you’re a patient reader. It’s got some big ideas that are worthy of considered exploration, but none that are particularly fresh. It’s solidly written with a distinctive voice and style, but there’s nothing especially exceptional about it. It’s a book that I’m glad to have read because it is a bit outside of my usual fare and a nice change, but I don’t feel compelled to read either more of McDermott’s work or more of this sort of thing in general. It’s not that The Fortress at the End of Time is unremarkable or pedestrian; it’s just a profoundly workmanlike example of its type of thing–thoughtful medium-hard military-ish sci-fi that has something to say about some stuff–if you like this sort of thing. I can easily imagine this being a book that lots of other people love, but I can’t muster any very strong feelings about it, myself.
The story is told in first person from the point of view of one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve had the misfortune to read about in some time. Ronaldo Aldo was raised on Earth and attended a military officers’ school, after which a copy of him (not really a clone, despite what the cover blurb says) is made and stationed on a remote military base at the far end of the galaxy, where he finds himself lonely, bored, and with few opportunities for success or advancement. While the book seems intended to explore the banality of that sort of everyday experience–not everyone can be a Captain Kirk, natch–I found Aldo so unlikable that it was difficult to root for him at all. For me, this is primarily because Ronaldo Aldo is a man who really doesn’t care for women, in spite of being straight and wanting to fuck/possess one (or more) of his own.
The first introduction to Aldo is his attempt to flip a coin with a friend of his over who gets to fuck a woman they are both hanging out with, only to find out that his friend and the woman are already a couple. It speaks to Aldo’s self-centeredness and obliviousness that he didn’t know that the people who are supposed to be his two best friends are in love, and it speaks to Aldo’s deep-seated misogyny that he ever thought it was appropriate to flip a coin for access to a woman’s body. McDermott doesn’t portray this behavior favorably, and I think that it’s intended to make Aldo unlikable from the start as well as set a baseline for his behavior towards women from which we can measure change over the course of the rest of the book.
However, Aldo’s subsequent arc never actually improves his attitudes towards women very much. Throughout the book, Aldo thinks of every woman he meets (and there are few enough of them) in terms of sexual attractiveness, which is consistently gross and off-putting, specifically because there are so few female characters in this book. Aldo’s championing of women at the Citadel feels hollow, and his “romantic” relationships are dysfunctional, with the dysfunction almost entirely on his side. Aldo continues to be slightly obsessed throughout the book with the girl from the very beginning; then he almost immediately becomes infatuated with the beautiful wife of one of the other officers at the Citadel, who he later has an affair with.
Aldo magnanimously gets involved with a young trans woman, but he primarily thinks of her in terms of her beauty and her transness, which is in turns almost fetishized and slightly vilified. Amanda’s transness is suggested to be a ploy to be able to marry a man and thus gain more land on the surface of the planet, and this plays off of some extremely negative tropes about duplicitous trans women who want to “trick” good men into being with them. I’d say that the treatment of this in the book falls in depiction rather than endorsement territory, but I’m not sure it’s handled as well as it could have been. There is quite a lot of time spent on talking about Amanda’s transness, in general but especially about her lack of childbearing ability (Future people can replicate whole people but can’t give a trans woman a uterus yet? Okay.) and there are several times where characters misgender and deadname her in ways that are derogatory and unpleasant to read.
Still, thematically, The Fortress at the End of Time is moderately ambitious, and McDermott does a good job of staying on target with the story he’s trying to tell. There’s not much fat that could have been trimmed here, and the deliberately slow pacing works nicely to highlight McDermott’s theses. The interplay between the planetside monastery and the Citadel could have been given somewhat more page time, but I may only feel that way because I could have done with less of Aldo’s feelings. All in all, though, The Fortress at the End of Time is fine. It’s not great, but it’s good, and sometimes that’s plenty. This isn’t a book that was perfect for me, but if you like this sort of retro-styled sci-fi or if you have a thing for unlikable protagonists and likely unreliable narrators, it’ll be right up your alley.
This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.