Susan R. Matthews,
An Exchange of Hostages
(Avon, 1997)

When we meet Andrej Koscuisko, the main protagonist of Susan R. Matthews' An Exchange of Hostages, he has just arrived at Fleet Orientation Station Medical to begin training as a torturer (or Inquisitor). The "medical" in the title is not a cynical euphemism; nearly all Inquisitors are drawn from that profession. This paradox is the first of many which suffuse this novel as it charts Student Koscuisko's training. And let's be clear, we follow this man as he attempts to perfect his ability to physically torture people, sometimes to death. Obviously, the world inhabited by Koscuisko is a long way from our own; nevertheless, a sense of its governing parameters is ably transmitted through an assured, if at times somewhat dense, prose style.

It is a time when humanity is dispersed throughout vast regions of space, and has been thus scattered long enough for planet-specific physiological attributes to have evolved from human stock. The leader of the dominant power is the Autocrat, in one of whose military arms, the Fleet, Andrej now serves. We learn about unrest in this empire only through confessions of various prisoners. In the course of allowing us listen to these confessions, the author depicts episodes of pain being willfully and expertly inflicted on bound, helpless people, so much so in fact that the book must in my view be judged a success or failure on the grounds of whether or not we feel at the end of it that the author's end was achieved and that the use of such descriptions was necessary and justified. This book can't have been written simply to entertain.

The main focus is on Andrej and his changing psychological state as he, like us, is gradually eased into the barbarities of Inquiry; I say "eased in" because in this etiquette and protocol-laden world, there are strictly prescribed levels of torture beyond which an Inquisitor may not go without authorization. Hence the need for training. All very civilized. As these levels are ascended the toll taken on Andrej's mental state increases in equal proportion to that taken on the physical well being of a succession of prisoners. The mental strain derives from the fact that, despite the great passage of time from the present, it appears that some of what we might term "humanity" remains unalloyed in people's hearts. The social/political system places enormous strain on this faculty, most particularly in the case of its Inquisitors. And they, to ensure their sanity, must suffocate their humanity (substance abuse is allowed), and their Tutors must do likewise in order to assist their students along the way. Consequently, the system of student support is a grossly inhumane one, relying as it does on a group of people termed "bond-involuntaries" -- those enslaved by means of a cruel, subtle mechanism as punishment for their crimes.

The character of Andrej Koscuisko is well drawn, particularly with regard to his inherent contradictions -- he is a gifted surgeon and yet mutilates people; he cannot suppress his humanity as others like him do, this retention of empathy with his prisoners making him, paradoxically, an extremely accomplished Inquisitor. All this, along with descriptions of his over-burdened psyche, is bound to start a debate in the mind of the attentive reader, rather as those experiments by a group of psychologists at Yale University did when, in the early '60s, they persuaded, by means of plausible explanation, ordinary citizens to incrementally torture a man strapped to what they were let believe was an electrified chair (the man in reality was a good actor, there were no shocks). However, the queasy, graphic descriptive passages in this book adds a strongly visceral, emotive element to any such debate, ensuring that in the mind of the reader it can never be a wholly cerebral one.

On balance I think An Exchange of Hostages succeeds as a work of science fiction, but to my mind it's a close thing. With this book every reader is left with a job to make up their own mind and decide which side of the complex argument they favour.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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