Before 2020 rocked the world, we lived in a culture whose moral compass was often guided by stories of heroes: characters leaping from the pages of comic books in patriotic colors, interplanetary battle-monks dueling with space-fascists, superpowered assassins with a preternatural talent for choreographed killing. When it comes to mass media, we tend to look up the chain of command for our leaders, depending on exceptional beings to do exceptional, world-saving things.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived like salt on the wound of our divided society, and suddenly our cultural “leaders”—politicians, celebrities, even some of our most treasured artists—revealed themselves incapable of rising to the moment. So instead of looking up, people have begun to look around, recognizing the eternal importance and resilience of the everyday people who make our world move. This is the moment into which Thomas Fowler’s new novel, Makeweights, was born, a thrilling story that finds two unappreciated—but essential—characters suddenly shoved into roles of heroes in a conflict much larger than themselves.
Makeweights follows Fehime and Albie to a distant corner of the galaxy, light-years from the world they call home on a ship called the Amethyst. Fehime is one of the ship’s cultural advisors, an intergalactic anthropologist whose knowledge of alien societies hides behind an unassuming profile and small stature. She has worked hard to get where she is, and for Fehime, her position on the Amethyst is a dream come true. Still, she longs to be directly involved in the ship’s ground missions, in which crews of mostly soldiers are sent to deal with cultural conflicts on the nearby planet Gliese 667Cc. Albie, meanwhile, is the ship’s risk assessor (read: the guy everyone on the ship ignores when he warns them of imminent, life-threatening danger). Albie is also driven by his ambition to see new worlds, but a recent accident caused by a trigger-happy soldier sent a shock of trauma through his life, leaving Albie permanently physically disabled and reliant on futuristic prosthetics. Albie’s disability doesn’t define his character, but it does fundamentally affect how he interprets the events of the novel. His perspective carefully balances his urge to make a difference with the lingering effects of his trauma, and invites the reader to understand the experience of chasing a dream when things like basic mobility are not guaranteed.
Fowler does an admirable job of maintaining a breakneck pace while allowing his characters to flourish and bond in step. A brash act by Albie in the early going puts Fehime in a position to make an impact on a ground mission, when soldiers take a sacred artifact from one sect of the planet’s dominant intelligent species and threaten to trigger a war. The resulting invitation for the pair to join the ship’s next ground mission is a dream come true for Fehime, but Albie remains apprehensive, still recovering physically and mentally from his last experience on a ground mission. Nonetheless, the pair join the fateful mission, which spirals from a tense diplomatic session to a deadly encounter that ends with Fehime and Albie stranded on a hostile planet with a superweapon whose power neither fully understands. From there, Fowler keeps his foot on the pedal, spinning up an action-packed tale with stakes of planetary proportions.
In Makeweights, Fowler grounds his blockbuster setpieces with the rank-and-file perspective of its lead characters, which offer a more proletarian take on a genre that likes its battles big and its science hard. Fans of meat-and-potato sci-fi from authors like Robert A. Heinlein or John Scalzi will appreciate the book’s on-the-ground feel and plot-driven narrative, while those hunting for an action-packed page-turner will find plenty of twists and a satisfying final-act payoff. Likewise, readers of character-driven fiction will enjoy Fowler’s depiction of a friendship made stronger not just by the scars of shared trauma but also by quiet moments of vulnerability and honesty. In those moments, it doesn’t matter whether you’re here for the spaceships or the plot or the aliens—Makeweights’ characters will inspire you to see out the journey.
Photo: Thomas A. Fowler