None of the refugees aboard the hundred year old, ocean going liner Arcadia have a terrific life. The ship was designed to hold only seven hundred passengers, and in the four decades since it’s been moored off the coast of the Federated States, the population has bulked out well past that capacity. Resources are scarce even with regular shipments coming from the States, as the opportunity to stop becoming refugees is weighed, measured, and adjudicated against what seems to be a continually moving set of goalposts. The publicly known ones involve a viral threat, which may well be laying dormant within the populace, so they are regularly tested, vaccinated, poked, prodded.
Esther’s family is doing well, however. She’s in the top two slots of her medical training class, her sister is about to graduate off the ship for permanent citizenship on the mainland, and the future looks pretty bright. She and May will be the first people in the three generations who have occupied this vessel to leave it. She intends to keep her eyes on the prize and her nose clean … but events conspire against her.
First, there is an illegal leaflet drop that announces one of the other refugee ships has been cleared and shut down. Where are all of its people? No one knows. Can this be for real? Well, the Federated States personnel see that drop as nothing less than an act of terrorism, and they begin to lock down the ship under martial law. During this fracas, Esther is taken against her will into the lower decks where the criminal classes, the poor, and the gangs dwell, and forced to treat a toxic gunshot wound on am unknown man … he’s masked and unrecognizable, but he calls her by name in a moment when he swims back up into lucidity. Who is he? Why does he know her? And although his people seem to let her go, will they let her live possessing whatever knowledge she has?
In fact, the young man she treated, Nik, is a high ranking member in the rebellion, a seditious group that seeks to throw off the yoke of Federated States oppression. He is tied to Esther’s family through her sister May, who has been leading a double life as a rebel. The two of them hope to speed the process of rebellion along, unaware that doing so will throw their worlds out of a comfort zone and into danger.
Commander Hadley of the Federated States hates being aboard this ship. He was given the role as a booby prize, a reprimand for poor duty. And he longs to get away from this rotten vessel and its worthless inhabitants. To this point, he’s been applying a heavy hand to maintain order, but he’s fast discovering that if he can ease his hold and allow a little anarchy to intrude, then he might be able to clear the vessel all the faster. That would mean all the inhabitants relocated into forced labor prison camps, the ship destroyed, and a reinstatement back into useful service. If terrorism and rebellion flourish, then maybe he can cut down his sentence by a couple of years. And if the terrorists and rebels won’t do it themselves, then maybe he can work some shadow ops to make it look like the situation is getting out of hand …
All the while, Esther’s life is being throw into disarray. Her boyfriend and fiancé Alex has found her talking to suspicious persons, her sister is getting angrier as she approaches her inevitable departure, her teacher has her under a microscope, and due to that leaflet drop and subsequent illegal medical operation, the stable world she has known is coming apart at the seams. Will she be able to adapt to her new world, or does Esther stand to lose everything she’s strived for? And even if she does her best, how will Esther cope with changes being forced upon the ship and all its occupants? Sarah Daniels’ The Stranded grapples with xenophobia and coming of age narratives while spinning a dystopian YA science fiction novel set in the cramped and overpopulated close quarters of an ocean going anthill.
One of my favorite science fiction conceits is the generation ship. Typically, narratives around this concept take the form of several generations following launch (and possibly a disaster or two) where people have come to assume the ship is the entire world, possibly forgetting they are on a traveling vessel at all. Cultures fracture into sects, often based on deck locations, and bizarre politics mingle with adventure stories in the finite boundaries of what amounts to little more than a pressure cooker.
While no one aboard the Arcadia has forgotten they are on a ship, Sarah Daniels nevertheless plays with the generation ship concepts in The Stranded. The author mates these with a dystopian world view, which holds a dark mirror up to the situation in our own world where war, disease, poverty, and other socioeconomic and political factors have rendered vast numbers of refugees displaced from their home nations to camp along the borders of the new countries they wish to call home. Too often, such people are lumped together, their individuality and humanity stripped away in order to more easily consider what is to be done. Refugee camps, asylum seekers, and other categories are somewhat easier to make wait because we can erase the human issues, looking at faceless groups instead of impoverished individuals.
The occupants of the Arcadia, the Oceania, and the other ships in the book have fled Europe following some devastating wars. The Federated States were not involved in these and therefore feel no real compunction to take these displaced persons into their populations. But they don’t want those ships to go to The Enemy, either. So they’ve made these floating camps dependent upon the throttled resource offerings and made them wait, and wait, and wait. However, the author keeps us from dehumanizing these people by presenting us with characters worth our emotional investment. Some are generally good people in a bad situation, others are greedy people trying to claim dominance through whatever means they can. As with any group, there are good apples, bad ones, those who tow the party line, and those who buck it. Unfortunately, the party line here—the hardest workers will be rewarded—is one big lie for all but a handful.
Esther’s journey is one of discovery, about the lie she’s been living as well as the lies she’s been told both by the authorities she trusts and the family she holds beyond reproach. She undergoes the classic maiden’s journey, a coming to knowledge and an application of that knowledge. The stakes start out seemingly small, but recontextualization reveals how big they are.
Daniels’ writing style is clean and compelling. The opening half of the book includes some action, some character, some worldbuilding, and some intrigue in good proportion to one another. Though the cast of characters is surprisingly large, we only have three points of view throughout the book. Esther gets the biggest chunk of the prose. Nik gets the second largest chunk, and the antagonist Hadley gets the final portions. This keeps us moving between three distinct social classes, the well-to-do ship occupants, the lower end ship occupants, and the oppressive Federated States occupiers who want everyone killed.
Structurally speaking, the book is divided into two major sections. The narrative could easily support three such divisions. Chapters present a first person viewpoint for Esther and Nik, and a limited third person view for Hadley’s sequences. The plot takes place over several days, some of which can be handled by a simple chapter break. Larger breaks in time include a “message from the Captain” recording the date, the news of the day, the number of reported Virus cases, and the number of days at sea—which is nearly 16000 as the book opens.
The author demonstrates an ease with establishing a modest scope and scale and then expanding upon it as the narrative flows. This effectively mirrors the way a young person’s perspectives open during those sensitive coming of age moments. From the start we see Esther, Nik, and Hadley’s worlds as a conglomeration of stereotypes, rumor, and rumor control. As the narrative progresses, we watch the first two’s worlds open up and the latter’s worldview narrow in.
As antagonists go, Hadley is a pretty unforgiveable one. We can understand him to a degree, but we are never encouraged to sympathize with his perspective. He’s gone past the point of sympathy, into a near mania when we meet him. In that way, he’s perhaps a tad more one-dimensional than some readers will prefer. However, as unforgivable, irredeemable pricks go, he’s certainly an effectively drawn one.
The Stranded is an intriguing character study and a slice of dystopian fiction with an unusual premise. The generation ship angle adds some cool material for the author to play with. The characters are effective and interesting. The stakes they face are appropriately personal and real, developing organically. The mix of action and intrigue is well done. The worldbuilding is certainly amenable to further works set in this place. I’d be interested in works that might explore some of the history as well as the present and future of this place whether or not they center on these characters or new ones. All told, a fun, fine read.
A special thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Fire for supplying an electronic copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Stranded is available for pre-order in eBook, hardcover, and paperback editions.
Next week, we take a look at an unusual Invasion narrative with K. C. Jones’s Black Tide. This book is available in eBook, paperback, and audiobook editions.
Daniels, Sarah. The Stranded. Sourcebooks Fire. Naperville: 2023.
“Say You Want a Revolution? Well, Everybody Wants to Change the World: Sarah Daniels’ The Stranded” is copyright © 2022 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image taken from the forthcoming Sourcebooks Fire eBook edition.