An Exchange of Hostages by Susan R. Matthews
I went into An Exchange of Hostages with extreme trepidation. Set in a dystopian future and focusing on two students training to be court-appointed torturers, it’s such stuff as nightmares are made of. I kind of assumed that about four pages in I’d be carefully setting it aside and regretting my diligence to read every obscure piece of speculative fiction written by women on my bookshelf.
But at the end of page four, I was still hungrily reading.
Andrej Koscuisko is a young surgeon trained in care for nineteen different hominids. He’s authentic, empathetic, thoughtful and only training to be a torturer on direct order from his father. (On his world, a father’s word seems equivalent to law.) Despite being from a prestigious or even royal family, he recognizes privilege and injustice. For example, he ruminates over his unlimited access to his preferred drug while others are incarcerated for a drug no more harmful and far more culturally significant. He’s hard not to like.
Mergau Noycannir is a tougher nut, and yet I still felt enthralled by her sections. She’s of humble (or even straight-up deprived) origins and worked her way up to some sort of administrative position for a high-ranking politician. She’s suspicious and insecure, constantly reading slights and threats into banal actions while posturing to ensure that she herself comes across in the best possible light. It doesn’t help that she’s the first torturer-to-be that doesn’t have a medical license. Her insecurity drives her, and she doesn’t think twice about causing harm to anyone so long as her superiors smile and nod. She’s not likable, but she is understandable.
Joslire Curran is a slave. He’s tasked with shepherding / caring for Andrej Koscuisko. He’s very, very mild-mannered, on account of a chip in his brain that causes him pain if he does anything untoward. And ‘untoward’ can be as simple as stating a personal preference when asked. Yet his personality still comes through. He’s clearly portrayed as a kind man, and someone we’re supposed to be sympathetic toward.
Finally, there’s Tutor Chonis. As the teacher, his job is to manipulate well-adjusted students into being willing to hurt, maim, and even kill whoever Administration sends their way. I found his parts particularly fascinating. He doesn’t seem to give the torture subjects any thought—a clear self-defense mechanism—but he does seem to care about his wards. He worries about Andrej and his increased drinking and how that will affect his future—even though, right now, all that should matter to him is if Andrej is meeting the appropriate benchmarks. And due to Mergau’s pricklishness, he feels a certain amount of disappointed frustration: she could be much better than her current acceptable status if she’d just drop the attitude. His dedication to his task and his tendency to truly want more for his students could almost trick you into forgetting what exactly he was Tutoring them in.
While I’m never eager to explore the darker reaches of humanity (cod knows glimpsing at the news once a day is plenty), seeing the world through the eyes of these four characters was fascinating in a way I find hard to explain. Matthews has plenty of experience in psychology, and I think she managed to put on display in a very natural way the sort of thoughts that are often un-checked background processes. As someone regularly utterly baffled by people, just getting what felt like an honest, realistic glimpse into someone’s head kept me captivated for pages.
It was also depressingly interesting and easy to watch as Andrej descends into his role as torturer. His understanding of injustice and privilege doesn’t save him from the fact that he’s not allowed to leave a practice exercise without demonstrating what he’s learned. And with this in mind, Andrej uses all the rationalizations and excuses you might expect to help him cope with his task. Someone was going to do it anyway. He has no choice in the matter; better to just get it behind him and take one day at a time. At least if he’s the one torturing, he can use limited force. You get the idea. It’s so clear how this helps him get through each moment, and because Andrej has been portrayed as such a sympathetic character up until this point, you don’t want him to feel bad. So even though you know the excuses are a lie—hell, Andrej knows it too—they still make everything feel a little more bearable.
At this point I was fearful that I was going through a similar psychological phenomenon that Andrej was going through—that my ability to rationalize the ‘now’ would keep me stepping into a future I didn’t want and I’d find myself 300 pages deep reading horrible and unnecessary depictions of torture because I’d been so carefully desensitized.
Then things took a turn.
Andrej, the kind-hearted man who could/would ruminate on the nature of injustice and privilege suddenly finds himself aroused while torturing some poor prisoner. It came out of nowhere. Not minutes before he was looking at the table of whips and cudgels—drunk as a skunk because it was the only way he could force himself to keep going through training—wondering how on earth he could be expected to use them. Then he pops a guy’s shoulder out of its socket and decides that he’s been a fool his whole life—pain, suffering, that’s what mattered. And he could do more than deliver it—he could enjoy it.
In a way I’m grateful. Had his descent into this depravity been slower, I’d probably still be reading. But a book following a guy who gets off on torturing people is, well, torture porn. And I can easily pass on that.
I am a wee bit disappointed, though. An Exchange of Hostages felt like it could have been a tremendous (if extremely difficult) piece of literature displaying how shockingly easy it is to lose your humanity, one step at a time. Instead, it’s torture porn with a lot of really well-written set up.
Blargh. I need to go read something fun now.
Cover art by Gregory Bridges