This novella proves that Joe Hill, of 20th CENTURY GHOSTS and HEART-SHAPED BOX fame, is at his best writing short pieces about children. The science fictionish GUNPOWDER, spanning a brisk 81 pages and focusing on a band of “gifted” kids, fulfils both requirements, so it’s no surprise that it’s a deeply affecting work.
The children at its center are biologically modified humans specially bred to live on a distant planet they christen Gunpowder. The kids all have gifts that allow them to psyform, or psychically create things like deadly knifegrass, a living steel bucket that thinks it’s a cat, and flying insectoid critters called Cutterflies.
Charley, the youngest of the group, isn’t gifted like the others, but can make things move with his mind. He uses this talent to create “The Great Wall of Charley,” a vast stone wall to protect the castle he and his fellows live in from invaders.
Also living in the castle is Elaine, who’s watched over the boys for the last fifteen years. She’s the closest thing they have to a parent, although it seems that’s about to change. The higher-ups want to use the boys’ gifts to further their military aims, which involves sending Elaine away and replacing her with a brainwashed fembot named Jackson. The boys aren’t too happy about this, particularly Charley, who in a weird twist of fate turns out to be their last hope against a seemingly invincible enemy.
Joe Hill, as we’ve come
to expect, has produced a strong, imaginative and extremely well characterized
story. The short length of the piece works quite well, allowing the subtle
character-based drama of the early pages to build to a climax of stunning
intensity, with psychic powers running amok in an enclosed space (proving Hill
is most definitely his father’s son). The children are all varied and distinct
individuals, and their world a place of shimmering twilight beauty--and, in the
end, terrifying destruction.