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Acadie by Dave HutchinsonThree stars
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A quick novella from Clarke Award-winning Sheffield author Dave Hutchinson before completing his acclaimed near-future Europe series, Acadie is a deceptively straightforward little saga set in a distant, very Alastair Reynolds-esque future where humanity has inhabited systems throughout deep space under the auspices of the Bureau of Colonisation. John Wayne “Duke” Faraday was a Bureau lawyer, until the day he faced an ethical dilemma over defending the Bureau against a massive suit resulting from gross negligence leading to large-scale death in a newly founded colony system. Now jobless and blackballed for his whistleblowing, Duke finds himself for all intents and purposes shanghaied by followers of the fugitive geneticist Isabel Potter.

Potter and her fellow gene-hackers, the Writers, have been on the run from Bureau justice for 500 years, and are holed up in their Colony in a system deemed uninhabitable (and therefore no longer worth any attention) by the Bureau. They have produced many generations of enhanced humans, some so enhanced they’re barely even remotely human. The hint is given, loudly, that the Bureau’s only real objection to Potter’s groundbreaking work is that they aren’t getting the chance to profit off the labors of a criminal and mad scientist.

Duke is acting as the Colony’s President when word comes in that the dewline, a shield wall made up of billions of probes encircling the system, has somehow missed an incoming Bureau probe, which is eventually fired upon and disabled by one of Duke’s subordinates. It appears the Colony has at last been discovered, and it’s time to pull up stakes and get out of Dodge before real trouble hits. But Duke isn’t actually prepared for what does come.

There is much here that’s fantastic, particularly Hutchinson’s crisp, noirish prose and the vivid texture it brings to his bizarre and multilayered future. I also liked Duke, though he was a textbook story in contradictions, mostly insouciant but ready to rise to the occasion and commit himself when needed. However, Hutchinson fumbles a bit in his narrative structure. Acadie does that thing where the story opens, dropping you into the middle of the action with nothing in the way of a roadmap, then shifting to backstory so we can all get up to speed with the universe and its rules before resuming the main story. This is a common approach in novels, but for a story as short as this one — it is possibly closer to a novelette than a novella — it creates jarring and abrupt shifts that a more sequential structure would have avoided, without sacrificing any drama.

Hutchinson also piles on snarky dialogue a little too heavily in his early scenes, to the extent it sometimes felt like a try-hardy attempt at mimicking John Scalzi. But most readers will likely be torn over the Shocking Twist Ending, which, in this story’s case, is actually pretty well executed and a legit shocker. The problem I have on general principles with these kinds of pull-the-rug-out endings is that as much as I may enjoy the sucker punch they deliver while I’m actually reading, they always end up feeling way more like a storytelling stunt than great storytelling. And the stories themselves feel as if they were written solely as elaborate set-ups, delivery systems for the punchline.

But Acadie’s great strength is in its richly imagined and rendered future: a universe of lawless science, lawful villains, and villainous heroes worthy of its own novels.