Marilyn K. Martin writes science fiction adventure the way it was meant to be written. To call “The Great Culling Emporium” the story of a bounty hunter grabbing his prey in the midst of a neutral bazaar is as accurate as it is misleading.
Science fiction writers have to walk a metaphorical tightrope. Future tech needs to be advanced and alien enough to feel like something more than just “a Mauser pistol, but with red LEDs”, and at the same time it has to be familiar and relatable enough for present readers to wrap their heads around it. Alien, but not too alien. Advanced, but still understandable.
Martin walks that line with aplomb. This story features blasters that don’t feel like WWII props with doodads bolted on. Atmosphere disruptors. Electron capture-cubes. Some kind of grav/jet pack. It’s all just novel enough and understandable enough to follow without feeling like the usual old stuff. Which applies just as well to the culture of the Culling Emporium as well.
If you’ve seen the execrable film Valerian, then you’ll remember the big bazaar in Act One that hovers in between a real and virtual bazaar. The Emporium feels a lot like that. It’s a sort-of-natural ground where the rules are written to allow just enough rule breaking to keep everyone on their toes and happy. A constant refrain throughout the story, the Emporium takes on a life of its own and feels much more like a character in its own right than a setting.
Then there’s the romance subplot. Our bounty hunter Jobard finds out his old partner Lomolly has a kiosk in the heart of the Emporium, and has to dance his way through the minefield of ‘the one that let him get away’ even as he attempts to (effectively) kidnap his target from a place where such things are (generally) frowned upon. The amount of subtext that runs through this story is truly impressive, and makes the sudden violence near the end all the more satisfying.