Firewalkers is a stand alone sci-fi novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky has written some of the most fascinating and imaginative stories I’ve read in the last few years, and that trend has continued here.
This is a story of an Earth which is slowly becoming less and less habitable. The equator is becoming a desert, the heat of the sun during the day no longer survivable. People are migrating north and south, toward the coasts, toward lives of desperation, armed compounds, and survival. Well, most people are. For the super-rich, for those with the will and the resources, there’s another option. The rich have their own starships. These are being built, in theory, to save some remnant of humanity from climate catastrophe. Practically, they’re the playground of oligarchs, accessible only by space elevators scattered across the equator. Nobody goes up without an invitation, and while a lot fo resources go up the elevators, not a lot comes back down again.
Around the elevators, the gates to an unseen world of privilege, towns have sprawled, dedicated to fulfilling the needs of those who haven’t yet made their way up the elevator. People are crammed cheek-by-jowl, searching for patches of shade in the day, eyeing the slow disintegration of their society and their dignity each night, as the desert gets closer, and hotter, and the number of jobs goes down.
It’s a harsh world, yes, but there are wonders. The ships themselves are fantastic, of course, but there are other things out in the deep desert, where those now up the elevator spent their youth in secret research labs, building the technologies that would save them. There are rumours of botched biological experiments, of stashes of forgotten riches, of rogue computers taking over facilities, of research vaults that could make you rich, if you could find them. And the infrastructure, the power which ran those labs, now runs the cut down shanty towns around the elevator whisking the privileged away.
That’s where the Firewalkers come in. Sometimes, things break. Or things need retrieving from the deep desert, no questions asked. Firewalkers will drive days through killing sun, into unmapped geography, and face the monsters - for a price.
Our crew is Mao, and Lupé, and Hotep. The muscle, the mechanic, the tech wizard, teenagers taking a horrifying risk for the promise of just a little more money, just a little more medicine, just a little more hope. The story stands by Mao, a boy growing into a man, deciding who he’s going to be, and whether he’s ready to keep taking risks, keep walking into the fire. It’s a wonderful portrayal of someone fumbling for answers, driven by their confidence and confusion, struggling to keep making things right. The two women, Lupé, and Hotep are wonderfully realised themselves. Hotep is damaged, cutting, and surprisingly fragile, wrapped in bandages both concrete and metaphorical, trying to live out a life wrapped in rage and hurt and betrayal. Lupé is pragmatic, generally more phlegmatic, with moments of fire and a sense of the burden of responsibility. The three of them are chaos, a team working well together, with an abiding friendship disguised under an atmosphere of mercantilism. You can see them all, out there in the broken-down dustrunner that they use to hurl themselves into the teeth of danger, striding through the ruins and secrets of a shattered world, risking their lives, but not heroes - just people, with all the fragility, the hard edges and quiet looks that make them feel real.
And they’re on an adventure, for sure. I won’t spoil it, but there’s so much cool stuff here. The climate crisis and the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite are front and centre here, explored with a precision and passion which makes for searing, unforgettable reading. It’s linked to some fabulous characterisation, and more personal stories, which help shape their world. Of course, if you’re here for the delving into shattered datavaults looking for remnants of a world long gone, whilst dodging sec-bots and horrifying abandoned experiments, it’s here too. This is a great story; it has a lot to say, and wraps its larger themes in a compelling narrative that kept me reading all night, even as I didn’t want it to end.
This is great stuff, and you really should read it.