Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva

Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat—an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories. She begins a negotiation between the US Government and a diplomatic contingent from Arenavirus, a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. If Vashti is successful, she and Arena will reach a diplomatic agreement; if not, the Arenavirus infection will continue to spread, and humans will have to race to try to find a vaccine or treatment. As she navigates the diplomatic discussions, Vashti is also trying to connect with her daughter Alma, who lives on the other side of the country in a technology-averse commune. By the time the negotiation ends, Vashti discovers that Arenavirus have learned some impressive and deadly tricks from their interactions with humans.

This tale takes the idea of having a bad day at work to an entirely new level. Humanity may go extinct if Vashti fails.

It’s rare for me to find science fiction about viruses that can communicate with humans, so I was thrilled when I discovered this short story. Intelligence in other species doesn’t have to look anything like human intelligence in order to be valid or, in some cases, dangerous. I was intrigued by the thought of how the world would look through the eyes of a creature so different from us, and Ms. Sachdeva certainly gave me a lot to think about there. Her decision to frame everything through the perspective of a person trying to communicate with the enemy was a smart one, too. There was plenty of room for character and plot development in the interactions between two such wildly different species alone, much less everything else that was happening in the storyline simultaneously.

I found myself wishing the ending had been given as much time to develop as the beginning and middle had to work with. The plot twist near the last scene was such a game changer that I was surprised to see how quickly the ending appeared from there. I’m not the sort of reader who expects everything to be wrapped up neatly, especially in a genre like science fiction that often thrives on unanswered questions, but I did find myself wondering if I’d missed something after I finished this piece. It would have been truly helpful to have a bit more information about what was happening there.

Vashti was a well-developed protagonist who had a sympathetic backstory and a likeable personality. Of course, it’s not strictly necessary for me to like a character in order to empathize with them or to be curious about what will happen to them next by any means, but it’s always delightful to get to know someone in fiction who I think I’d get along with quite well if she were a real person. She was a logical, calm individual who thought through everything carefully and had a contingency plan for all sorts of possible outcomes. I wanted to sit down with her and ask her at least a dozen questions about her work. That is a sign of memorable writing in my opinion.

Arbitrium was full of surprises.

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