5 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Book Review: The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

Title: The Fortress at the End of Time

Author: Joe M. McDermott

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Tor.com
Publication Date: January 17 2017
Hardcover: 305 Pages


In The Fortress at the End of Time, humanity has expanded across the galaxy by use of ansible and clone technology, but an enemy stands in their way—an enemy alien in concept as much as physiology. Ronaldo Aldo is a clone stationed in the back-end of nowhere—a watch station with a glorious military past, but no future. He’s desperate to prove himself worthy of ascension—of having his consciousness broadcast to a newer clone, far away from his current post at the Citadel.

How did we get this book: ARC from the publisher

Format (e- or p-): ebook


Ana’s Take:

I have mixed feelings about The Fortress at the End of Time.

I am a huge fan of the author’s sadly underappreciated Dogsland Trilogy and as such, had super high expectations for The Fortress at the End of Time. In many ways, my expectations were met.

The Fortress at the End of Time is a short Science Fiction novel set in the distant future where humans have fought – and won – a war against mysterious alien and where people get cloned and sent on missions around the galaxy. This is done instantaneously, via data transmission through a piece of technology called an ansible. Each clone carries the memories of their “originals” but are effectively new people once they open their eyes on whichever planet or spaceship they are sent to colonise, and have to create a new life of their own, whilst their originals remain on Earth carrying on with their life. This is how humanity keeps colonising the universe, in order to avoid the “island” effect and to keep the gene pool going.

The novel opens with the main character confessing to a terrible crime and going back to narrate his life up until that moment. We come to learn that a military officer named Ronaldo Aldo’s first clone get the shitty end of the stick when he is sent to the worst possible posting: the remains of a spaceship at the edge of the known universe, the remnants of the last war, now transformed into an outpost looking out for new (unlikely) attacks and overseeing a colony down below.

The story follows Ronaldo’s first decade at the Citadel, his struggles with the loneliness and apathy of a hated posting, with co-workers that are pessimistic in the face of a mindless job where the suicide rate is as high as the sky. Ronaldo’s only hope is to ascend: to prove himself worthy of having his consciousness broadcast to a newer clone. It’s the closest thing to immortality Ronaldo can think of and effectively his end game.

One has to admire the author’s commitment to carrying out this premise to its fullest potential: an existential look at what loneliness, apathy, and hopelessness can do to people trapped in a job they hate, a life they loathe with little hope of getting away from it. It’s a book about staying alive – and well – against all odds. It takes a look at corruption, despair, ethics, moral codes, the very idea of humanity and it ends on a really interesting note, circling back to its opening and the crime Ronaldo commits. It’s up to the reader to decide whether the crime is excusable or not.

With that said, this is a really depressing book, set in an oppressive environment, with the reader trapped in the head of a shitty, whinny, self-absorbed, entitled, emotionally stunted jerk and reading about a world that is hostile to everybody but especially to women and trans people.

Now, whilst I admit to having a personal preference for optimist stories, I do question a lot of the elements surrounding this story and why they even needed to be there in the first place as they truly made no difference to the story being told. Sexism and transphobia as decorative pieces of world-building are really not my thing.

This is a book set literally thousands of years in the future, and yet we still have “gender relations” being “complicated”. Men and women do not get shipped out to the outpost at the same rate (why not) and there are dozens of men to a woman at the Citadel. Although equality exists in terms of the types of jobs they do, the book depicts the scarcity as a problem, with men sexually attacking women left and right because men are sex-starved animals, I can only surmise. This is first made clear when our main character witnesses a sexual attack only to learn that there isn’t anything that he can do to help the attacked female character because “boys will be boys”, “everybody does it” and pretty much every single male character has a record of sexual harassment anyway. Plus, the women have ways of dealing with it off-page too. Frankly, I am dealing with this sort of thing on a daily basis in the present, it is disappointing to say the least to read a book set thousands of years in the future in which women are still second class, pussy-to-be-grabbed citizens. Similarly, there is a trans character in the novel, Amanda. Amanda has recently transitioned, having had operations. It is implied that this is an easy thing to do in the future, which is great. Yet, a lot of the characters keep calling her by her previous name, Jeremy, offhandedly. It is so jarring and off-putting. But to my point: none of this makes difference to the story being told. These? Did not need to be there and the story would remain the same. So. Why. Are. They. Here.

The Fortress at the End of Time’s storyline is an interesting philosophical exercise that part of me appreciates on an intellectual level but most of me just truly, deeply disliked the experience of reading it.

Thea’s Take:

Ah, The Fortress at the End of Time.

I’m going to speak plainly, confessor. I have all the mixed feels about this novel.

I will start with the good things: The Fortress at the End of Time is an existential novel about loneliness, depression, and the utter failings of humanity. It’s a bleak book about clones stationed at the shittiest outpost of the galaxy, where they struggle to find meaning and purpose for their lives. The humans have won the war against the aliens–and Ronaldo Aldo’s post at the eponymous fortress at the end of time is because of that victory. But victory comes at a cost–instead of interstellar travel in the regular way, humans are cloned and spread to the far reaches of space. A clone awakens whole and new at its destination, and from there works to fulfill its destiny in the hopes of guts and glory. To do well is to transcend and for one’s clones to move up the ladder. McDermott, in this short novel, throws it back in style and substance to the old sci fi genre standbys–Fortress is very Heinlein in its execution of the world, and characterization.

And that’s where things go off the rails for me. Because, confessor, the problem is that the narrator of this book-speaking to an unknown confessors, recalls his sins. And Ronaldo is just so…. irritating. Prideful, but full of mistakes and catastrophic decisions filled with ennui, The Fortress at the End of Time is so damn hard to read because of its crappy main character. Know this, confessor. The main character is insufferable. Ronaldo’s story of sin is dull and sad, and while it captures beautifully the problems of humans in space–those at the fortress are sad, bored, frustrated and end up blowing themselves up, or resorting to other means–it’s also boring and hard to read. I believed in Ronaldo’s authenticity and voice, but I plainly despised the character.

What other things were frustrating with this novel? I loved the descriptions of space–when we get them–but so much of the dialog and description is confined to the oppressive confines of the station. I was frustrated with the way the story develops and how it’s filtered through Ronaldo’s perspective; I hated the treatment of women and how, again, sexual assault is normalized–even in a society where humanity can grow clones and reach the farthest corners of space, we haven’t figured out sexual politics?

I wanted so dearly to like this novella, confessor.

But sadly, I did not. For me, it’s a skip.


Ana: 5

Thea: 5 – meh

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1 Comment

  • Jan
    February 10, 2017 at 7:09 am

    I’ve read several other reviews and these aspects were never brought up, which I find both curious and concerning now. As always, I appreciate your honesty.

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