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A review of "The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station," by Marie Vibbert
It’s easy to imagine “The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station” coexisting in the same universe as Peter Hyams’ 1981 science fiction movie classic “Outland”.
Appearing in the July/August 2021 issue of Analog: Science Fiction & Fact, the novella gives readers the sort of gritty, working-class-in-space atmosphere Hyams depicted in his film (and which he may have cribbed from Ridley Scott’s earlier “Alien”.)
Marie Vibbert creates a future where women and men still want to go to space—but when they get there, they find it’s not as glamorous as they were led to believe.
The story follows two women who share an enmity for one another, and a dependence on the same man (but for different reasons).
Lottie is an engineer on Callisto Station, a scientific facility for gravitational research orbiting Jupiter. She struggles with a mental illness that—when she’s unmedicated—can make her brilliant, but also distracted and destructive. She trusts her psychiatrist, Saravit, but no one else.
Xiao Fung, the station’s Facilities Manager, is strong, competent, brash, and outwardly self-assured. She is devoted to her boyfriend Saravit, but harbors an insecurity that Lottie’s interest in him goes beyond the doctor/patient relationship.
Saravit, Callisto Station’s psychiatrist, is tall and well-built—which can lead to complications like Xiao’s jealously, because he is one of only two men on-board. Always cost conscious, the corporation controlling the station generally hires women to go to space, because they tend to weigh less. This makes attractive males a rare commodity. While the female personnel mostly date one another, Vibbert gives the impression that in some cases this is a matter of necessity, rather than preference. Consequently, Saravit does his best to present himself as just a physician, and to downplay his sexuality—but he is not fully successful in allaying Xiao’s fears.
An unexpected event endangers the entire crew, and also upsets the delicate balance of this three-way-relationship. If Lottie, Xiao, and Saravit are going to survive, the two women will need to learn to see one another as more than enemies and rivals.
Vibbert does almost everything right in this story.
The main characters are three-dimensional and flawed. We understand their struggles and empathize with them.
For the most part, the antagonists come across as real people, not caricatures.
Callisto Station itself feels like a real place, with all the imperfections that implies. Vibbert excels at explaining the layout and the functioning of the station’s rotating torus design. When a couple of characters go extravehicular, she gives these scenes an appropriate and unsettling feeling of vertigo.
The writing, plot, and interpersonal stories all kept me turning pages in my Kindle app.
My complaints about the novella are few, and should in no way discourage you from reading it.
At one point, Vibbert has a character question the location of the airlocks on the outer edge of the spinning ring, where anyone exiting could easily be thrown off into space. I agree with this criticism, which makes me wonder why she didn’t move the locks to the inner edge of the ring, where someone going outside could just climb out and stand on the station’s “roof.” Keeping the airlocks on the outer edge contributes tension to the story, but seems contrived, especially since even the characters recognize how dangerous it is. If the positioning is necessary for engineering reasons, Vibbert could have explained this to resolve the contradiction, but the story leaves it as a mystery.
When the antagonists are revealed, they are mostly men, which seems to run counter to the earlier revelation that most people selected for space travel are women. The narrative contains all the elements of a logical explanation, but it is never fleshed-out, leaving the reader with another apparent contradiction.
I also found the characterization of the antagonists leader to be fairly weak, which seems strange, as elsewhere in the novella the characterization is so strong. If it was a matter of wanting to keep the story under a certain length, Vibbert could have combined a couple of antagonists to give the leader more depth.
Overall, however, these are minor issues. “The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station” is a magnificent example of hard science fiction combined with authentic characters and a very human story. For anyone whose interests run along these lines, it makes for compelling and fulfilling entertainment.
And when you finish it, go watch “Outland.” :)
Recommendation: Read it!