REVIEW: “The Best Friend We Never Had” by Nisi Shawl

Review of Nisi Shawl, “The Best Friend We Never Had”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The story starts with a woman named Josie returning to the space station where she grew up, seeking to recruit her friends for a hazy project on behalf of her employers, ARPA. Josie, is a conflicted, complex woman. She seems to have left home for a reason, after getting into some sort of trouble (though we don’t know what it is), yet here she is coming home. She wants to recruit her friends for this job that she clearly thinks will better their lives economically and socially, but she can’t directly tell them about it. The title itself suggests that she isn’t quite who the people from the past think she is, but that doesn’t make her unsympathetic. She keeps herself at a distance, maybe due to the secrets of her mission, but maybe out of habit. That distance made it difficult for me to get as emotionally invested as a prefer, but also suits her character.

I loved the world-building here. The slang is just different enough from our own to suggest linguistic drift, but rooted enough in current language that it was easy to understand. The important things – the hierarchy of haves and have-not’s, the general social order of the habitat (“hab”) – are well developed, while everything not critical to the plot is simply described for us to accept and get on with the story.

The end is not easy. The future world of this story is rife with capitalism and corporate greed (sound familiar?), and that rarely ends well for the lower classes to which these characters belong. Yet it isn’t without hope. I wouldn’t say that it offer any answers to the present-day issues it explores, but it also doesn’t consign them to inevitability – there is a sense that the struggle against them might someday bear fruit, even if we don’t see it today.

This is a long story. Apex didn’t include a word-count this time, but it took me over half an hour to read it. That isn’t a criticism, simply a warning so that you can give yourself enough time to get through it in one sitting.

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