Review: Refugee

Refugee (Bio of a Space Tyrant, Book 1)
By Piers Anthony (1983)

The main character in Piers Anthony’s Refugee is named Hope Hubris, something that doesn’t take as long to get used to as one might think. Hope is a refugee from one of Jupiter’s moons, forced to flee with his family toward Jupiter when an impulsive act of violence against a wealthy white boy leaves his Hispanic parents no reasonable alternative. With his parents and two sisters, he boards a space bubble, a crude transport designed for utility, not comfort or speed, and his family is mistreated before it even blasts off: the space bubble is overbooked, overloaded, and under-provisioned.

The passengers learn almost immediately how vulnerable their craft is when it is boarded by space pirates who do horrible violence to the refugees. The bubble is easy pickings, as it has no real defenses, and its occupants have nowhere to turn for help. The entire novel, except for one lengthy sequence on the surface of another moon, is a series of encounters with pirate ships, each taking its share of whatever the harried refugees have to offer. It’s not pretty, and it gets progressively uglier with each episode.

I’ve read about ten Anthony novels, which is a tiny dent in his bibliography—I count thirty-nine published books just in the 1980s—and his works have always had a strange, dark tint about sex and violence. Mostly sex. Most of it is hinted at in punny titles and the freedom that made-up worlds in fantasy and science fiction afford, but this novel is many shades darker, with such cynicism about sex that I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish this six-novel series. While it does not glorify violent sexual encounters, the cynical telling is nearly too much to endure, which I suspect is the point: these refugees have to confront some of the worst evil in others and the survivalist instincts in themselves just for the tiniest hope of a better life for their children, and of course not all of them will make it.

Still, the telling seems to cross a line from horrifying to fascinating. I believe quite firmly that some time before they enter their teens, children need a close-up look at a dead dog at the side of a road. They have to hold their literally morbid curiosity up against their realization of death’s finality, and come away with some kind of vague sense of the value of life. It’s a terrible thing to ponder, this need to look right at death in order to understand life, and Anthony seems to feel this way also about rape vs. sex, sex vs. love, and even bodies vs. people. Is it an artistic statement, or chilling titillation? Or is Anthony making the case that, like children unable to look away from the dead dog, we are unable to confront our darkest truths without feeling the same thrill?

I could make a legitimate case for any of these possibilities, but I’m not sure I want to. It’s practically pornographic, the way Anthony engages our emotions in dealing with this stuff, and I just don’t have the heart for it anymore. I’ve already decided I will at least begin book two, Mercenary, but I’ve hit my threshold for cynicism. A dip below this line, and I think I’m done.

Refugee is an interesting story with a mostly compelling narrative arc and characters I really care about, but a person can handle only so much revulsion while rooting for characters to rise above this revulsion. For me, it’s this much.

2.5 of 5 stars. I sorta like it.

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