The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan
The Dry Salvages is a science fiction novella set in a future where humans have advanced to extrasolar space exploration and Earth is dying, struggling under the burden of nuclear winters and other climate disasters. The story is presented as the reluctant account of exopaleontologist Dr. Audrey Cather, the last surviving member of the crew of the Montelius, whose mission had been to explore the remnants of a long abandoned mining encampment on a distant moon called Piros. Now an old woman, Cather hints that her memories, unreliable though they may be, threaten the lies and cover-ups of a nebulous government agency and that they monitor her to assure that she does not share with anyone what she witnessed on Piros. Through a hesitant narrative that she repeatedly questions the accuracy and validity of, Cather relates how she and her fellow shipmates arrive to find that the preceding crew has either disappeared or become mentally unstable, and that their ship, the Gilgamesh, is being operated entirely by its android support crew, whose memory banks seemed to have been deliberately wiped of all details about what has happened on Piros, as have all files uploaded to the ship’s AI system. As it becomes increasingly clear that something is terribly wrong, the tension and fear rapidly mount and Cather and the other members of the Montelius find that they must resist succumbing to the darkness that has been waiting for them on the surface of Piros.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novella. It is an excellent example of how a master of their craft is able to accomplish more with less. In just 120 pages, author Caitlin R. Kiernan is able to establish characters and settings with a level of depth, pathos and realism that allows the reader to quickly and thoroughly immerse themselves in the story. The science aspect of this science fiction, Cather’s brief discussions of extraterrestrial fossils and the ecosystems of various extrasolar locales, is handled deftly, conveying both Cather’s (and by extension Kiernan’s) expertise and knowledge without dragging down the story and suffocating it’s creeping sense of dread. It probably won’t take readers any longer than a weekend to reach the conclusion of this story, but it is sure to stick with them for much longer. Fans of sci-fi and horror, this is one to check out!