Title: Grown Men
Author: Damon Suede
Cover Artist: Roberto Quintero
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 109 pages
Every future has dirty roots.
Marooned in the galactic backwaters of the HardCell company, colonist Runt struggles to eke out an existence on a newly-terraformed tropical planetoid. Since his clone-wife died on entry, he’s been doing the work of two on his failing protein farm. Overworked and undersized, Runt’s dwindling hope of earning corporate citizenship has turned to fear of violent “retirement.”
When an overdue crate of provisions crashes on his beach, Runt searches frantically for a replacement wife among the tools and food. Instead he gets Ox, a mute hulk who seems more like a corporate assassin than a simple offworld farmer.
Shackwacky and near-starving, Runt has no choice but to work with his silent partner despite his mounting paranoia and the unsettling appeal of Ox’s genetically altered pheromones. Ox plays the part of the gentle giant well, but Runt’s still not convinced he hasn’t arrived with murder in mind.
Between brutal desire and the seeds of a relationship, Runt’s fears and Ox’s inhuman past collide on a fertile world where hope and love just might have room to grow.
Woefully underskilled for the task he's taken on in terraforming, Runt is starving in the midst of plenty. Maybe he's streetsmart from his upbringing in spaceport alleys, but when he intercepts a big crab trying to carry off a mealpack, he eats the mealpack, not the crab. He's not TSTL, he just doesn't have the necessary skill set, and the clone wife who didn't survive the landing may or may not have been able to make up the deficiencies in wildlife recognition and machinery repair, but we'll never know. Equally mysterious is why he's out here at all, aside from the lure of riches once he's homesteaded his island. HardCell means business, we are told, but Runt isn't really a good prospect for a grubstake and doesn't have the necessary capital to buy in. If HardCell is so hardcore as to choose colonists only for their willingness to be dumped out in the back-ass of beyond, they don't need to kill off the underperformers; the world will take of that for them. Runt doesn't have the skills to teach the offspring he hopes to have to populate this new world.
Ox, the giant mute man who came with the supply drop, is equally a mystery, and while his backstory is explained elsewhere (a free short on the author's website), he at least comes with some skills that make all the difference between subsistence and prosperity. He also comes with some jacked-up pheromones, creating havoc with Runt's sex drive. Even as Runt and Ox have to come to a working arrangement as farmers, they have to come to some understanding about Runt's physical reactions. Runt's paranoia, fueled by a surprise in the supply shipment, is strictly his problem.
Ox doesn't come through very clearly on the page, with brief mentions of traits that don't get clearly shown. Something like this:
The giant wasn’t quick to adapt, but he had a knack for thoughtful strategy when he stayed calm.
shouldn't be a throwaway line: what happens when he doesn't stay calm? Rubbing calms him, humming or rumbling calms him, but he doesn't get agitated or anxious first. There's another throwaway remark about Ox liking to play practical jokes, but no illustration of a prank.
I enjoyed the evolving relationship between the men; they communicate pretty well despite Ox's muteness, resorting to writing only once in a while. When they take the final plunge into sex, it makes perfect sense. The underlying current of small equals weak, big equals strong, big equals more work than small can do was really aggravating early on, but as the men's teamwork evolves, this irritant resolves.
The worldbuilding, while laid out on the page, doesn't make so much sense. Two suns and three moons are going to create extreme weather and hellacious tides, (plus really screwy shadows) but HardCell has been able to engineer these things away. The tropical climate they have should lend itself to a mostly outdoor life with palapas or ramadas to keep off the sun, but Runt and Ox lead a mostly indoor existence when not actually farming. An evening under the stars is so rare as to merit an entire chapter.
The society building is stronger—HardCell has a prepackaged, predigested way of life to sell to the galaxy, which comes through very strongly. Runt retells an ancient Greek story to Ox, recast in the corporate mold, illustrating the technological grip. The story raises some horrifying questions. What are clone wives, why do they exist in this society and what is their place? Are they human or property? Intelligent? Is there a shortage of desperate, risk-taking women, or why else go for engineered colonists? Cloned men are common, genetic engineering for humans is so routine that Runt bemoans his parents' lack of foresight in the matter, but the clones don't seem to be considered entirely human.
The one big sex scene is definitely a step out of the ordinary, taking account of the differences in size between Runt and Ox, and of Ox's oversize equipment. (Forty centimeters is about sixteen inches, FYI, and eighteen cm around is roughly a medium-sized wrist.) It was different, and it was hot, even if I did have to figure out who was where and how at one point. It was also a technical problem, coming on the heels of a near-death experience for Ox.
The plot twines around in a full circle with a twist, very nice. The writing is smooth and evocative; Runt's voice is very distinctive, and this is almost enough to soothe me past the story problems. The incomplete characterization of Ox, the partially explained society, the partial worldbuilding, and some continuity errors (eg a cleaned floor that is suddenly bloody, then clean again) keep me from being entirely in love with this story. 3.75 marbles