An Exchange of Hostages by Susan R. Matthews
372 pages, Avon Books, $5.99
Review score: * out of *****

I have written a number of book reviews for these pages, but recently I've given them up to devote my time to developing compiler software. I still buy and read a lots of books, however. Sometimes I read a book that sticks in my mind. If its a book like Neuromancer or Terminal Cafe, I savor its memory. If its a piece of writing like Kafka's Penal Colony, the memory is not as pleasant. Susan Matthews' book An Exchange of Hostages is not a book that left a pleasant memory. I am writing this review, in part, to put that memory to rest.

Dreams of space exploration have declined in step with NASA's fortunes. As frontiers have disappeared, science fiction has become darker. The worlds imagined in current science fiction novels are less optimistic and grittier than those created twenty years ago by science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon. Few science fiction writers have created a world as dark as the imaginary universe that is the back drop of An Exchange of Hostages. This is a world where an oppressive totalitarian state rules an empire spanning star systems. The Jurisdiction rules with an iron fist, supported by the military force of the Fleet. Those who break the laws, or who are merely at the wrong place at the wrong time, are subject to Inquiry by the Jurisdiction. Inquiry is a formalized system of torture. For those who offend the Judicial order, but escape a sentence of death by torture, there is slavery enforced by an artificial intelligence implanted in the central nervous system. These slaves, known as bond-involuntaries, serve the tortures as assistants and body guards.

The central character of An Exchange of Hostages is Andrej Koscuisko, a brilliant medical doctor and surgeon. He is the heir to a planetary feudal empire and fortune. On Koscuisko's home world, obedience to family is ridgedly enforced and Koscuisko has disobeyed his father in some vaguely specified matter, involving a woman. Apparently as punishment for his transgression and to properly train him for his inheritance, Koscuisko has been sent to a station, in deep space. There he will be trained by the Navy, the oppressive force of the Judicial order, as an inquisitor. Instead of using his medical training to heal, he will use it to preserve those he tortures from death, so that he can squeeze as much information out of them as possible before they finally die. After training, Koscuisko will be granted the Writ, which allows him to apply torture and requires his service as a torturer for eight years.

Andrej Koscuisko's fellow student in the art of pain and information extraction is Mergau Noycannir, a woman who a Clerk of the Court for First Secretary Verlaine. The First Secretary is a shadowy figure who apparently desires to use the Writ and the right to torture for his own personal gain, instead of the service of the Judicial order. Verlaine's desire to oppress people to increase his personal power is, the story line implies, less noble than applying torture to support the totalitarian state. The character of Noycannir is used to show, by contrast, that Koscuisko is a more noble torturer than she is.

Unlike Gene Wolf's central character in The Shadow of the Torturer, there is little to redeem Koscuisko. He is simply a monster with a human face. He cares about his slaves and his victims. By showing us his human character, Matthews is showing us that the camp commandant is actually a good family man. Not once in this book does Koscuisko rebel against the system and refuse to take part in the atrocity of his world. As I read this book, I kept wondering who the author was. She writes well. What motivated her to write a book with such a dark and demented story line? I believe that the sadistic impulse lives in all of us, but to write this book Ms. Matthews must have gazed deeply into this dark well. The brief biography on the back cover of the book describes Ms. Matthews as "an army brat". Did her upbringing give her a taste for authoritarian societies? The story line in An Exchange of Hostages is unfinished and the book is clearly the first book in a series. But after wading through such a dark work, I suspect that few readers may return for more. I certainly will not.

Some of those who have read my review of An Exchange of Hostages find it unfairly harsh. Some of the comments I have received, along with my responses, are included here.

Ian Kaplan - 6/97

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