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August 4, 2022

Rich Larson’s science fiction novel Ymir features an ice planet, innovative aliens, a faint flavor of Jack McDevitt’s favorite trope in the abandoned alien technology left on the planet, a grim cyberpunk setting observed with an edge of humor, and allusions to the gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet and the hunt for what the humans think is evil in Beowulf. It’s an intoxicating mix, and a page-turner.

We focus on Yorick (“alas, poor Yorick, I knew him…”) and how he manages emotionally and physically when his job ends up getting him thrown back into the simmering cauldron of resentments on his home world. Our attention is continually drawn to his skull, as he is either missing his jaw or wearing a prosthetic mandible, and we keep wondering how he lost it until we get the whole story in pieces, like his life.

The heart of the novel is in the relationship between Yorick and his brother Thello, who grew up on Ymir with an abusive mother and physical characteristics identifying them as “half-breeds.” While readers see from Yorick’s point of view, part of the fascination of the novel is figuring out which characters we should be sympathizing with and rooting for. Eventually we figure out that most of the characters “don’t remember Ymir before the company. Before implants and indenturement and the mines,” and the novel is telling a story of how that could change.

Science fiction technology is presented, in this novel, as part of the story, seamlessly integrated into what is happening and with humor, from the very beginning when “Yorick wakes up dead, which is never comfortable.” Ymir is a mining company world, built around a piece of abandoned alien technology; “it’s the ansible that drew the first colonists here, the ansible that marks Ymir as one of the Oldies’ abandoned worlds. The company took it over during Subjugation….”

Yorick is a company man, and readers long to find out why and when that started, especially because he drinks and drugs himself to get through his daily life. The secrets are revealed slowly, and when readers start to think they’re putting a complete picture together, they find that the puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit, that the corners are not exactly as Yorick believes he remembers.

The writing is good, tight and well-paced, if sometimes a bit on the edge of noticeable, like when Yorick thinks that his company boss Gausta “always did have a tenebrous sense of humor.” But using the exact right words in the right places does create the foreboding atmosphere that draws readers onward, eager to figure out what has happened to Yorick to bring him to this point. And some of the earlier instances of what seems to be overly dramatic language are transformed later, as when we’re told that it’s difficult to distinguish between laughter and sobbing in Yorick’s artificial voice and then later a prisoner who was “disbodied” and used to power a bar robot in a hotel “makes the same electric sound, but Yorick knows it’s the other one,” referring to the earlier description in order to turn understated and poignant.

The language and descriptions of futuristic technology culminate in the moment when we see Gausta present Yorick with an ultimatum, saying “they’re already dead, Yorick….Now, in the hibernation pod. A few years from now, in the war. I’m only asking you to excise the slice of time between those two points, and in doing so save thousands of other lives. There will be no pain.” Since Yorick’s life has been almost nothing but pain, readers can feel the pull of this appeal. We get the many stories he tells about how his jaw was blown off: “he blew half my fucking head off” and “most of the time, I tell people a Grendel did it….Sometimes other stories. Ordnance accident on Hod. Trying to kiss a wood thresher on Tyr.” And then finally we get the real story, too painful to tell, even to himself.

It’s clear that none of the pain can be redeemed by starting over. Yorick’s brother makes this point, talking about the meaning of a story their mother told them, saying that the moral was that “dead things have to stay dead….People who leave can’t come back.” In a future where brains can be plugged into machines, this moral is also a moral stance (and one I approve).

In the most obvious echo of the story of Beowulf, Yorick learns what he needs to know in order to start again from what he learns from the grendel’s arm, an arm he has claimed as a trophy after his seeming victory in the battle against it.

And although the abandoned alien technology may remind some readers of Jack McDevitt, Larson does it better, as he reveals some of the mystery, the part that affects everyone on Ymir. And in a move we see only in the best science fiction, the emotion of the story is tied in with the technology, as when Yorick’s brother reminds him that “you can’t get older in a torpor pool.”

Ymir is a brilliant novel, as effective in its descriptions of what we’ve never imagined before as it is in the way it evokes what we often feel, whirling us through drug-altered thoughts, songs, stories, and machine-driven actions to show how much effect these characters have on others, even when they feel most helpless and alone.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2022 10:25 am

    Oh this sounds like a treat!

    • August 8, 2022 7:50 am

      It really is…I might have enjoyed it a little less if I’d read it in the winter, seeing as how I hate winter and this is an ice world.

  2. August 8, 2022 6:56 am

    Wow, this is quite the rave! I’ll see if my library has it. Do you think I’ll be okay to read it if it’s been untold ages since I read Beowulf and I don’t remember anything about it anymore? Or would I do better to read the new Beowulf translation and then come back and read this?

    • August 8, 2022 7:53 am

      I think it will be fine to read without reading Beowulf. The allusions I picked up were to keeping the arm as a trophy and a little bit about perspective on who the bad guy is (this is not from Beowulf itself but from reading things like Grendel by John Gardner).

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