ABBOTT IN DARKNESS by D.J. Butler, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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ABBOTT IN DARKNESS by D.J. Butler, Review

Alexander Wallace crunches the numbers.
Accountants aren’t particularly heroic people, usually. My mother is an accountant and she has not gone on any world-saving adventures that I know of. And yet, I’ve seen speculative fiction turn accountants into heroes twice. The first time was in Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which I read in lockdown. The second is Abbott in Darkness by D. J. Butler, released in 2022 from Baen Books.

John Abbott and his family, a wife and two daughters as well as a dog, are in dire straits. The family is deep in debt and John has lost his job. To remedy this, John takes a job to work in the accounting department for a massive company that runs an extrasolar colony outside the remit of the law of the United States in an authoritarian manner, something like the early Virginia colony in the seventeenth century. Once there, John is assigned to deal with what appears to be a smuggling ring in a backwater settlement far from the centers of civilization on this planet and is drawn into a web of lies, deceit, and violence.

In the past few months I have come to quite appreciate the work of D. J. Butler; I have previously reviewed In the Palace of Shadow and Joy and City of the Saints; I have also read his novel The Cunning Man co-written with Aaron Michael Ritchey. He is a more recent writer in a tradition of science fiction and fantasy I associate with Harry Turtledove, S. M. Stirling, Eric Flint, and Jerry Pournelle, with a sort of grittiness and focus on societal dynamics that I very much enjoy.

Butler writes a lot about social class; The Cunning Man is a story very much predicated on economic inequality, as is Abbott in Darkness. In this novel, John Abbott has to do what he does to survive, as do so many other people in this colony. The plot is driven by the greed of those who are either rich or desire to be rich; there’s a very current undertone of proceedings that can feel disturbingly familiar.

It helps that John Abbott is very much an everyman character, relatable in a calm, gregarious way. He’s not an ideologue or a preacher; he’s a simple man trying to make his way in the universe. He is no chosen one, and that’s the perfect sort of person for this story.

Butler succeeds superbly in bringing this future to life; faster-than-light travel aside, this feels like an all too plausible development of contemporary economics, which is of course one that is rather bleak. It’s a future that’s not unlike the Old West, and in a way that very much remembers the role of corporations in this bloody expansion. The cities on this planet pulse with life, in both rich and poor areas, and most vivid of all are the areas beyond the big settlements. There’s life there, and interesting life at that.

Abbott in Darkness is another fun space opera tale, and one that I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s both good entertainment and a meditation on inequality, and for that it was positively delectable.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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