REVIEW: “Inclination”

Title: “Inclination”
Author: William Shunn
Source: Asimov’s Science Fiction (April/May 2006)
Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

I’d known that William Shunn (shunn) was coming out with a new story for some time and last night, I finally got around to reading it and I was not disappointed.

“Inclination”, the lead novella in the April/May 2006 Asimov’s, is the story of a boy living on a space station, who has had a very religious upbringing, and who now has to move outside his comfortable niche in order to help his father earn money. It is both a coming-of-age story, as well as a story of culture-clash and culture shock. Jude, a teenager, has to struggle with his identity as a member of an almost cult-like religion, while working among the “sculpted”, who he sees as heathens. He also has to come to terms with his own sexual identity, his relationship with his friends, his father, and his mother. And all of this, while living in the harsh environment of a space station. It is a tough spot for kid to be put into and it could be a very difficult story to pull off, were it in less capable hands.

Fortunately, William Shunn pulls it off without seeming to break a sweat. First, the harsh environment feels real to us. Changes in gravity as Jude moves throughout the station are felt by the reader. When Jude would move from the low gravity of his ward to the higher gravity where he worked, it was as though I could feel that sudden compression in my chest. Second, the culture feels real to us. Shunn evolves a fascinating religion that revolves around the “six fundamental machines”. We come to learn that this religion has some of its origins in Christianity, but the analogies drawn between the religions make their divergence seem natural. Finally, Jude is a totally believable teenage character. We have all known people like Jude, whether in junior high, high school, or college. Very quiet, very religious, never questioning his faith.

Until he does question his faith. You feel this coming as you read the story, and it draws you deeper into the tale. You know that Jude is going to make choices that inherently question his beliefs, he has to. What is special about the story is that you don’t necessarily know how those choices will play out. At one point in the story, Jude has to decide whether or not he should be “sculpted”–have his body physically altered–in order to be able to perform a highly specialized task at work. Sculpting goes against his entire belief system. I found myself hoping that Jude would have the strength to decide against it, but in the end, he decides to do it. That I was disappointed with his decision only goes to show how much (and how quickly) I grew to care about this character.

The feel of the story, the setting, smacked of influences of both William Gibson (and the world he created in Virtual Light) as well as Robert Silverberg (and the world he created in The World Inside). It’s hard to say whether these influences were intentional or not, but regardless, Shunn made them his own. The end of the story, which I read on the train this morning, was very moving. So much so that I might have even felt, as Jude did, “saline globules tremble at the corners of my eyes.” This is inconvenient when you are surrounded by strangers on the subway, but it also goes to show just how powerful a story “Inclination” is.

I give “Inclination” 4-1/2 stars.