Review: Joe McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time

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Check out some new, thoughtful scifi on the outer rim.

Review: Joe McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time

By David Simms

Tor Books 272pp
TPB/Kindle editions
ISBN-10: 076539281X
ISBN-13: 978-0765392817

The deepest parts of space. The places where soldiers are sent to die, to wither, to watch their own souls fold in on themselves from the despair of lives tossed away by a civilization that has closed its mind off from a forgotten war. This is the place where they have sent Ensign Ronaldo Aldo, a newbie from the academy, where he can live with the awful sin he has committed.

Joe McDermott has penned a tale that is difficult to categorize. True, it has some of the tenants of classic space opera and hard science fiction, but The Fortress at the End of Time shuns both labels in its story, for the most part. Sure, drama exists and those who live on the dilapidated station fight through horrid conditions, both literally and with themselves, but the true conflicts comes from a deeper place. Though marketed as “hard” the science does not overwhelm and takes a backseat to the characters. What can readers expect? Existential scifi applies, yet the inward journey here delves more into the psychology of the young ensign and the dead end, both physically and metaphorically.

McDermott spins a different sort of story that is a confessional, conversational in manner, and a far cry from the typical action-filled military science fiction it has been lumped in with. The prose pours from the ensign’s voice as if he has been resigned to his fate and nearly sings his own dirge. What results is a mostly easy read, one with pages flowing and thoughts cracking.

The story itself sounds simple enough. Aldo, freshly graduated from the academy, has been cloned (as all soldiers fit for galaxy travel) and shipped across the ansible to the Citadel, a forgotten station that has grown with rust as the rest of the cadets ship out to more challenging missions. Why was he sent here? What he finds there, and speaks to his confessor, is a nightmare. The Citadel appears to be the last bastion of hope against the enemy, an alien force which remains a mystery, and populated by other misfits. The piece of him that has landed here aches for excitement, flying into danger against an enemy he trained to fight. Instead, he helps keeping the station pieced together with scraps. Each person, from the acerbic Admiral to the rest of the staff who all have a reason for being shipped there, a stake in leaving, and ulterior motives that Aldo must decipher in order to have a possibility to ascend to a better place, or retirement.

The one escape for the crew exists a semi-barren planet beneath them, a monastery more akin to a wild west town from the mind of George Lucas than place of worship. Aldo meets someone there, someone who could give the piece of his soul meaning, a reason to stay instead of transcending his hell and cloning himself across the ansible to a place where he can fulfill the destiny he believes still is buried within him.
The Fortress at the End of Time is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel that may be a departure for those who are expecting the usual, which is a good thing here. McDermott has written a fine introspective tale that tackles matters of the soul, as well as heart, in a plot that churns along as his character seeks to survive, and escape a living hell before space can erase them from memory.


David Simms is the author of Dark Muse (Melange Books), a YA dark fantasy, and Fear the Reaper (forthcoming) with several published short stories in anthologies, mostly in horror. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia after many years of misery in New Jersey with wife and son and furballs while teaching English and Special Education, counseling teens, and giving ghost tours of historic Staunton.