Scars: Of Rats and Men

If gratitude is the measure of a man, then J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars is a story about taking the measure of two men who are at their lowest. By men, I mean one man and one genetically modified rat. 

Our heroes are James, retied astronaut and garbage disposal man, and Max, an augmented bomb disposal rat with near human intelligence. For those of you not in the know, rats trained to find and mark land mines already exist in our world today! They do not have near human level intelligence, although I personally know many people who lack the ingenuity of the average rat, but they make up for it through a well-trained sense of smell. Max is a logical extension of this concept, a rat with the intelligence to also disarm the land mines they find and reclaim land long unusable due to the danger the landmines present. 

Or at least Max was that. When we meet him in the story, Max is retired from that line of work and now makes ends meet as James’s emotional support animal. 

James was an astronaut who towed debris out of orbit so it would no longer pose a danger to space lanes and satellites. Then he lost his leg in an accident we don’t initially know the full details of. With a prosthetic, PTSD and a host of pills to take there’s no way James is ever getting sent back into orbit again. James and Max are a pair of oddballs with long histories in interesting and dangerous careers that leave them with very strong opinions on the world and how they should live in it. 

Scars is a novella and as a result it’s difficult to discuss the plot without recapping it in its entirety. I don’t plan to do that here, you’ll have to read it if you want an idea of the story beyond what you get here. The character development is great, the characters themselves are interesting and the plot… well, it’s very simple but perfectly suited to the story. Not every narrative needs politics, romance and betrayal. The story is mostly a character study and it studies those characters quite well in the space available. 

Finney has done his research. He’s looked into the mechanics of space flight and the dangers therein. He’s a longtime rat owner and it shows, my knowledge of the temperament and behaviors of rats has expanded exponentially based entirely on reading this one story. Admittedly, I knew almost nothing before. 

There’s also a lot of interesting angles explored through the characters backgrounds, which are both similar and wildly different. Both are used to high stress and highly regimented lifestyles whereas they’ve responded to their changes in circumstances in very different ways. Psychology was clearly a part of how these characters were developed and it’s quite satisfying to see.  All that said, this is not a perfect story. 

For starters, we end with James making a resolve to change his behavior. That’s admirable and leaves a door open for further stories exploring how he acts this out but I would’ve liked a conclusion that shows us his first steps along that road. Perhaps that would have overshadowed the ending. I didn’t see the story in previous drafts and I know finding the right ending point is difficult but I was left a little unsatisfied. Given everything I know about James I’m not sure how well he can follow up his new direction. I would like to know how rocky the road would be for him, especially since we may never see him and Max again. 

Speaking of that little rat, Max is a great character but he’s a little one note. He has one major emotional beat in the story and the rest of the time he’s pretty much the same as always. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of character. I just felt like Max has the potential to be much more and it wasn’t explored as much as it could’ve been. Some of this is a choice of medium – novellas are short, they don’t dig into characters as much as novels do. Some of it is undoubtedly the author working to keep the point of his story sharp. My critiques here are more nitpicks than outright flaws, matters of taste more than errors. 

If you’re looking for a short, interesting sci-fi story delving deep into the nature of two interesting characters, I recommend to you J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars