Stein and Bruce are engineers aboard the Argos, a generation ship 240 years into its trip to Tau Prius. They are a vital part of society, an elite pair of troubleshooters whose job it is to keep the ship running and the staff able to carry out their duties.
Stein and Bruce are so, SO bored.
They hate their jobs, they especially hate their boss and they hate the venal, bored idiots they’re locked into an (Admittedly really large) ship with. Then, during a spot of recreational burglary they find something they really shouldn’t. As their investigation grows from one sparked by boredom to one sparked by fear, Stein and Bruce discover just how bad things are aboard the Argos and just how far the powers that be will go to stop them.
Severance is, rather like the events that change its lead characters’ lives forever, a book that sneaks up on you. Stein’s laconic, perpetually annoyed attitude and Bruce’s mildly psychopathic bonhomie make for one of those perfect double acts and Bucholz has a lot of fun with how they interact. Stein’s calm, grounded and pretends that she’s a grownup. Bruce burgles place for fun, usually with Stein in tow. Together they’re not only a refreshingly down at heel pair of leads but also a clever summation of their world. Tired, annoyed, locked in with a bunch of idiots for a very, very long time and getting rather too good at making their own fun.
Through them, Bucholz explores the Argos and introduces us to the various mini cultures aboard, the fractionation along job lines and the political conflict between the Captain and the Mayor. All of this is done with charm and laser point comic timing, but it’s also used to shift the book’s focus not once, but twice. First, we get an idea of the Argos itself. Second, we see what happens when the society that holds the massive ship together through apathy as much as dedication decides to tear itself apart.
That’s where the book really comes into its own. Make no mistake, the first act is really good fun but once the central plot is revealed, Bucholz shifts into high gear. The event at the centre of the book is horrifying in a uniquely human way; a passive aggressive, ‘non confrontational’ approach to what amounts to mass murder. It’s chilling two different ways; firstly because of how cowardly and hypocritical it is and secondly because there are no clear cut sides here. Bucholz carefully populates the two factions in the ‘war’ with complex, real people. They all do, or say crushingly cruel or stupid things. They’re also all capable of moments of real empathy and understanding. The crew of the Argos are a family; a fractionated, grumpy family on the longest car journey in history and sick to the back teeth of looking at each other’s stupid faces but a family none the less. As a result, the two moments where things get very, very nasty really stand out. There’s an immense emotional cost to those beats in particular, and one not felt by the leaders of the factions but the people on the ground; just like Bruce and Stein.
That leads to a nuanced, brave and at times poignant examination of human nature. It also leads to one of the best double acts in recent genre history realizes they have to step up to the plate. Stein’s mildly cold, deadpan approach is the perfect foil for Bruce’s endless joy at everything and the pair are just really good fun to hang out with. Bucholz also takes great pains to ensure they’re more than they appear. The reasons for Stein’s slight distance are integral to the plot and throw her into a remarkably grounded, very plausible light. Stein is one of the most normal, and, as a result, most interesting leading characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. She reacts how we would, and a lot of the book’s conclusion is tied up in her not just being one of the smartest but most pragmatic people in the room.
Bruce is one of my new heroes. Firstly because his creative approach to fun is both utterly charming and leads to many of the book’s best lines such as:
‘Gonna get me some windows. Gonna live like a Pope.’
And secondly because Bucholz makes no bones about the fact that Bruce is a large, somewhat overweight guy who is at least as physically and intellectually capable as anyone else on the ship. Seeing him treated as an equal to everyone else is almost as refreshing as how well Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is written in Spy and, like there, it grounds the story tremendously. Which is especially appropriate given how important the ship’s eventual landing is to the plot.
Severance is one of my books of the year. It’s hugely funny, extremely humane and far more ambitious than it lets on in the first few pages. Little touches like having a house with windows being a status symbol and the recreational approach to war the crew used to have all combine with a great pair of central characters to create one of the best SF novels of the year to date.