An interplanetary bureaucracy faces a moral dilemma in Erin K. Wagner’s An Unnatural Life, a novella that prioritizes thoughtful questions over dramatic plot points. An Unnatural Life focuses on answering exactly one question: Who, or what, is guilty of murder? Aiya, a lawyer living on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, takes the case of an android named 812-3, who has been convicted of killing a human worker. Were 812-3 human, the case would certainly have been labeled a mistrial and would be liable for appeal. Aiya takes on the role of representing him, applying for appeal on his behalf even though androids do not have equal rights under the law on Europa.
Wagner lets the story unfold in a passive, third-person voice, creating an atmosphere more reminiscent of nonfiction and biography than science fiction. Events play out as if a neutral party were merely reading the thoughts of Aiya, or calmly dictating her actions. As a result, no moral question or dilemma is resolved or answered by the narrative; the reader is left to ponder these questions themselves.
This documentarian voice allows Wagner to paint with the brush of a journalist, depicting events clearly and factually. Feelings of disgust, fear or suspense in the reader are neutralized in favor of thoughtful inquiry measured with reasonable skepticism. Similar to most nonfiction explorations of modern events, An Unnatural Life eschews a normal, tidy ending for one that is more realistic. While Aiya’s emotional and social journey is certainly not uneventful, Wagner’s nihilistic take on the state of humanity does not leave room for much to change by the end of the story.
Perhaps due to its placement beyond the asteroid belt, or its entirely icy nature, Europa serves as an excellent backdrop for Wagner’s stoic and cold novella. While Mars or Venus may appeal to the uninitiated, Europa has always had a distinctly alien, otherworldly feel. The choice of setting also facilitates a likely setup for a sequel: a series of short, first-person radio logs that document an explorer’s journey into the unknown areas of Europa. This subplot gives the novella an interesting cadence as it bounces the reader between suspenseful exploration and courtroom politicking, sometimes within the space of two paragraphs.
An Unnatural Life will appeal to the philosopher within its audience, those who want to cozy up and consider a lightly challenging moral and ethical dilemma.