Distinguishing autobiographical bleed-through on any author’s fictional canvas can be a tricky business. In the case of Patricia Ward, it’s impossible to ignore. Her first novel, The Bullet Collection, followed two sisters through war-torn Beirut, where Ward herself grew up during a period of civil unrest. Her second, Skinner Luce, a full-fledged SFF parable, operates within a likeminded trauma spectrum. Here’s a story where alienation is a precondition for individual growth, a form of resignation echoed in the experiences of a writer who fled certain death in her teens, since which time she has lived and worked in the United States.
Ward’s alter ego is Lucy, one of many “servs” acting as go-betweens for an alien race, the seemingly immortal Nafikh, and the human beings oblivious to their visitations. The Nafikh seek out Earth as humans do Las Vegas—which is to say, as an excuse for uninhibited recreation. The Nafikh try their best to blend in, to varying degrees of success. Veterans manage to hold their human form, while newbies are prone to violent unraveling. In either case, servs must be present to ensure the safety of everyone involved. It’s an enslaved existence for Lucy, whose every assignment might be her last. The parallels to modern trafficking ring that much more loudly for Ward’s insight into the pain Lucy endures daily.
Said pain is not only emotional. It’s also physical, as servs are animated by the Source, an internal combustion engine that could extinguish itself at any moment, and which fills Lucy’s body with chronic torment that can only be alleviated by drugs. The pain fluctuates depending on circumstance, is more intense when close to another serv and most so in the presence of Nafikh. Serv overseers, on the other hand, are granted regular access to painkillers, as befitting their station, while Lucy, being lower on the Service food chain, makes do with alcohol.
The Nafikh travel to earth by means of Gates, favoring the winter months that presumably mirror their home climate. Most Nafikh cannot tolerate being around humans without causing at least some collateral damage, but are too addicted to Earth’s mortal taste to stop anytime soon. Hence, the terrifying irony of the serv’s existence: Lucy wants nothing more than to escape her cage, even as the Nafikh take perverse pleasure in locking themselves inside it. Servs are expendable, and Lucy must count the days until her quota has been filled, her only mantra being to get out of every situation alive so that she can get that much closer to independence.
One complication makes her unique among servs: she was raised by a human family. Whereas servs typically keep close quarters among their own kind, Lucy spends her formative years for all as human until a late coming of age into Service splits her loyalties down the middle. She has tried her best to live a “normal” life among humans, but with no certain place among either species she has hit an identity crisis at the novel’s beginning when transitioning a newly arrived serv, whom her corrupt overseer plans to sell on the black market. Lucy thinks back to her own arrival, which she is glad to have been too young to remember. The infant in her care is minimally communicative and maximally frightened, and she wonders how much this dynamic will change as the new serv matures.
Lucy’s deviant behavior as a teenager once plugged her into the foster home circuit, but through it all she has maintained an amicable relationship with her mother. Along the way she meets Julian, a serv who sees through her right away and briefly wins her heart. Through him she learns to enjoy her status, even as it assails her by its secrecy. She then allies herself with Theo, another resourceful serv, who bought Julian out from Service into freedom. Lucy is excited about the prospect of joining Julian and Theo in the fullness of their image, if only to escape the farce she’s been living. But a schism between the two men provokes existential hardship. Where Julian sees the Nafikh as their godly creators, Theo is convinced that all servs were once were Nafikh and that they might share more than they let on. Their very Source indicates Nafikh origins, a fact Julian has harnessed to combat their “mortal incarceration” by procuring surplus Source to keep them from aging. At once tempted and repelled by this vampirism, Lucy continues as is.
Now that Lucy and Julian are no longer together, the excitement of those days having eroded the shell of her existence, she resents him for being able to afford his own relief, leaving her ill-equipped to support his radical cause. But neither can she pour her empathy into new arrivals, who fill her with disgust. When her latest charge awakens, she cleans and feeds him, saddened by the fact that he is already addicted to the narcotics that ease his hurting. When she sees a picture in the paper of the same boy dead in a junkyard just days later, her flickering suspicions of Julian and his gang grow into an inferno. And when Lucy is questioned by a sympathetic homicide detective who may or may not understand who she really is, her life goes through its own unraveling, starting her on an unforgettable quest for self.
In a 2016 guest post for SF Signal, Ward admits that the traumas of a past she thought were behind her have resurfaced in her creative endeavors. To be sure, we can intuit hints of what must have been a precarious childhood for both author and protagonist, as when Lucy visits home on Christmas Eve, only to receive from her mother a family photo album utterly lacking in chronology, thus presenting her life as a series of unconnected pieces. Even more salient are the coping mechanisms Lucy must manufacture within if she is to maintain any semblance of sanity without. “This is her forte: shutting down, waiting things out,” Ward writes, confirming the mindset of a perpetual victim.
Neither can we ignore the novel’s parallels with modern politics. Does it mean nothing that “servs” sounds like “Serbs,” recalling Bosnian wars of the late 1990s? Is Lucy’s daily grind really so different from our own? Are similarities to the recent Syrian refugee crises coincidental? In answering such questions, we validate the novel’s timely exploration of pandemic abuse. All of which nourishes a bittersweet ending that leaves Lucy beholden to the same system. She clings to hatred throughout the novel, but comes to see it as a useless trap of indifference. She is a leaf on a tree that’s resigned to autumn’s arrival. Still, something leads her to believe the Nafikh care, for she knows her tormenters are also slaves, if only to themselves.
Reading through this novel the first time, I felt like Ward was too often focusing on unnecessary details. For example, after a bloody altercation, she writes, “The splatter on the wall is thick. It has brain in it. Wallpaper can’t be cleaned. It’ll have to be replaced, and it’s such a job, removing the old, patching the plaster. It’ll cost, unless she does it,” when the first sentence alone would have sufficed. Events should be driven by action, I thought, not exposition. But after revisiting a few choice passages, I began to see these fixations as defense mechanisms of a mind seeking points of distraction from persistent horrors. In having to remind myself that Lucy, as a serv, was in constant pain, I realized I knew nothing of what it was like. That said, this novel demonstrates one of the most appropriate uses of the present tense I’ve encountered in a long while, adding as it does to the immediacy of Lucy’s truth-seeking.
Deceptions toward the end may spoil the fun for some, but for me made the story more realistic. And this is the book’s real social value: it makes us more uncomfortable the more we invest in it, because life for a refugee is no different. Ward has proven that finding oneself is only half the battle. The rest is keeping that self once in grasp.
(This review originally appeared in the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)