What do the movies Requiem For a Dream, Unforgiven, and Saving Private Ryan all have in common? Give up? They are all movies that were brilliantly made which I recognize as exceptional movies, but that I never want to watch again. And the reason is simple. Each movie portrays a bleakness, a world where hope goes to die. And once transported to that place, shown what the film-makers want to show me, I find that seeing it once is enough.
Now, what does this have to do with Broken Slate by Kelly Jennings, you may ask. More than you would expect. Then again, it is written in the fine and honored tradition of Dystopian sci-fi. And Dystopian this is. Broken Slate takes place in a world called Julian centuries and some indeterminable distance removed from Ancient Earth. Julian is dependent upon Contract labor, essentially slaves, many of whom are put into the system at an early age through orphanages. If put in the system at a later age, like Martin, our tortured protagonist, it us usually for perceived criminal acts. Contracts, called “cots” for short, are second class citizens in every way. They own nothing except that which is provided by their Holders. Insubordination is not tolerated, and punishments are cruel in the extreme. A pair of young Contracts who attempt escape to a mythic rebellion in the hills are used to demonstrate this. The couple is dealt with by way of public execution and the burning of their corpses while all the Contracts in the town are forced to watch. The message is clear: “You live by our will alone.”
Martin’s Holder, Deja, is a more direct symbol of that oppression. He keeps Martin not for his practical skills as a secretary, but for his beauty, engaged in a dynamic of sexual control. Sometimes tender, often brutal, he is consumed by jealousy in insecurities. It is Martin who bears the brunt of his master’s rages, and because it is more personal and couched in the words of love, this is the perhaps the most damaging thing in Martin’s life.
Despite vastly superior numbers, fear of reprisal, of punishment, that they are truly alone keeps the Contract population in line. But fear has its limits, and gradually Martin undergoes a period of questioning. If his life is so bad, what is there to fear from trying to bring about change and failing? When a man truly has nothing left to lose, how much power does fear truly hold?
It’s might be difficult at times to read Broken Slate if you have even a rudimentary knowledge of slavery in our shared history. Likewise if you have an experience with abusive and dysfunctional relationships, this could be tough. That’s a good thing. Really. That is because the author clearly knows her way around the material and makes it breathe. And As painful as things get, Martin’s journey is not without hope of redemption. As rich as I found the descriptions of the physical environment, as detailed as the aches and pains of the abuses heaped upon Martin as he claws his way blindly towards his destiny, it is the emotional weight that put the hooks in me. While there were times I wondered exactly where the story was taking me, I never lost interest in the journey to get there. And I am pleased that my loyalty to the story was rewarded with an ending that, felt hard earned and strangely inevitable.
As an examination of the power dynamics and those who use fear to control people, Broken Slate is a thoughtful little gem of a sci-fi novel. The characters are rich, even if I didn’t always like them. If you’re a fan of Dystopian sci-fi, don’t mind reading about sex (most of it male/male) and sexual domination, then I suggest you give Broken Slate a read. You can find it here, and I strongly suggest you pick it up on release day, July 15th, if you have the opportunity.