Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading Eric Brown's "Weird Space: The Devil's Nebula"

Abaddon Books has begun a new series, created by Eric Brown, entitled Weird Space, with the first novel--The Devil's Nebula (Abaddon Books 2012)--written by Brown himself. It's a space opera with horror elements and I predict it will be one of Abaddon's most successful franchises for two reasons: (1) Eric Brown is at the wheel; his fertile imagination has already produced some interesting and unusual takes on a well-worn genre: Kéthani (Solaris 2008) and Kings of Eternity (Solaris 2011), as well as more straight forward space opera; and (2) because within this novel Brown has either employed or alluded to all of the major themes and tropes of both classic science fiction (space opera) and space horror through his mixture of Buck Rogers-like adventure and Lovecraftian terror.  

Nebula, unlike Kéthani and Kings of Eternity, falls into the Niven/Vance camp of science fiction and shares similarities and themes with Brown's Bengal Station Trilogy. Although the similarities with other science fiction franchises also seem apparent--Warhammer 40 K, Star Wars, and Star Trek--Abaddon's proclivity toward genre mash-ups, their brilliant editing, and Brown's deft touch make the Weird series feel unique.

The novel at first blush employs well-known tropes and situations: older man with a past commands a spaceship involved in various forms of illegal activity;  young  woman, athletic and lonely, has secret crush on older man; somewhat erratic and cowardly engineer makes up a third in the Trio; crashed space ships (several) with no sign of the inhabitants (mystery and horror); fascistic government; spies and hidden agendas; deserted worlds with evidence of lost civilizations; and, of course, monsters in space. Even the back story feels familiar: The Expansion, a megalithic authoritarian empire consisting of human colonists, continues to grow and colonize planets until it runs afoul of the Vetch; also a growing empire of warlike humanoids.Other worlds and other aliens are either colonized or destroyed by the emerging forces. While humans and Vetch vie for dominance in the same dimension, other dimensions populated by the horrific creatures, the Weird, monstrous creatures hungry for experience and knowledge, collide with human space and open portals.

Even though the tropes and the back story are familiar, the novel feels fresh. I think one reason for this is the deft way in which Brown handles his materials: his novels tend to unwind rather than follow some movie-like script and the characters act naturally in unnatural settings. Another reason is the fact that fusion (genre mash-up) invigorates well-worn tropes: space men sucked through a tentacle to a Tarzan-like habitat at the top of giant trees is fun and unique.

To provide maximum fusion (mash-up), I imagine Brown and Abaddon intended to provide a wide platform in which to both utilize and develop familiar tropes. In that respect, knowing this was the beginning of a series, I jotted down just a few possible ideas: Vetch verses Human in military-science fiction; Vetch verses Weird in a Predator-verses-Alien story; individuals battling Weird in Lovecraftian horror tales; humans infected with the Weird rebel against the Expansion; Vetch join Human against Weird; Humans use Weird against Vetch; Human crashes on Vetch world and must survive; spies and rebels carry on clandestine operations on worlds infected by the Weird. Permutations seem infinite. I even imagined a domestic horror like The Shining: one mate infected, the other not, both trapped in a secluded location.

Approaching the novel in this way--as a generative rhetoric--illustrates its game-like quality; however, for the series to succeed and grow, novels with well-developed characters and interesting stories must enflesh it. The Devil's Nebula begins that process and I believe succeeds as both an entertaining space opera/horror (romance) and as a precursor to a larger series.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Pat Kelleher's "No Man's World: The Alleyman" and Defending the Portal Novel

Pat Kelleher returns this month with the third volume of his No Man's World series: The Alleyman (Abaddon 2012). For those unfamiliar with the series:I refer you to my reviews of The Black Hand Gang (Abaddon 2010), for Red Rook Review here, and The Ironclad Prophecy (Abaddon 2011), for Hub Magazine here. As you can plainly see, I love Kelleher's heady melange of alternate military history, Edwardian portal novel, death world adventure, dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His intentional genre mishmash makes his novels irresistible. 

The Alleyman
(Abaddon 2012) picks up from where The Ironclad Prophecy ended. Four months have passed since Jeffries, the magus, concocted some spell to transfer a large portion of the Somme battlefield to an unknown world, along with an entire battalion of British infantry, the Pennine Fusiliers, a British tank and its crew, a pilot and his plane, and a hand full of nurses. As you can readily see the cast of the series is large and at the beginning of The Alleyman, they are spread over the map of the death world. A large cast and a gigantic created-world present their own peculiar problems to an extended narrative. I faithfully follow a few series: Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files,  Simon Scarrow's Cato and Macro, the Black Library's Gotrek and Felix, George R.R. Martin's  A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome, and now Abaddon's No Man World. And I have noticed that each one shares a common problem: as the narrative extends in length and complexity, the author must find a way to bring the reader along and remind him or her of all that has come before. They usually accomplish this through dialogue as they situate their characters on the stage. Some simply present a data dump, while others spread the summary through the novel . No matter, the solution always results in a slower beginning and so it is in The Alleyman. But be patient; writing a series is a marathon. The reader must sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride. 

The initial scenes of the novel find the fusiliers recovering from a series of disasters: a vicious attack by the local chatts, sentient insectoid creatures that dominate the world, the loss of the tank,
Ivanhoe, in a gigantic crater, the escape of Jeffries, and the discovery of a bizarre metallic wall.  The men are tired, disillusioned, wounded, and angry. So to complicate matters, they mutiny. Lieutenant Everson deals with the mutiny and then turns to his other tasks: the recovery of the tank, the return of a chatt priest to its people in a bid for peace, and the capture of Jeffries. These three problems form the the major prongs of the plot.

And the novel is highly plot driven with a Saturday morning serial vibe. It's pulp trappings (a la Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard) should not dissuade the reader though. Kelleher is a strong writer with a thorough knowledge of World War I; he has  created a multi-level, nuanced death world populated by a plethora of unique creatures, well-rounded Edwardian soldiers, and two indigenous species with their own religions and civilizations. Additionally, as an Abaddon series, Kelleher has also created so many mysteries that it will take a bakers' dozen novels to fully explore them. I will give you just one example of one of his cast-off mysteries: in the first volume, the magus, Jeffries, finds in the chatt city a Roman coin, a denarius, that immediately alerts the reader that throughout time other peoples, besides the Roanoke colonists and the Pennine Fusiliers, have been drawn to the world. Maybe even the chatts are aliens to the world?  And then there is the world itself? With the discovery of the metallic wall and the existence of an underworld, I wonder about its substance and origin.

, The Alleyman introduces new characters and monsters, propels the plot forward, uncovers new mysteries, employs horror motifs (zombie-like creatures appear), and ushers us to the brink of a new chapter in the series.

As an aside, there has been a lot written lately about the death of the portal novel; most recently Rachel Manija in her
Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace  discusses agents' and publishers' distaste for the portal fantasy:  They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they're not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world. 

Let's get something straight: the portal novel has been a staple in fantasy and science fiction since the beginning. C. S. Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, Stephen R. Donaldson, among others, have employed the portal novel to transport us from the here and now to the other. There is even an argument that both J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are portal novels.Think about it: Hobbits living safely in the Shire through the machinations of wizards are propelled into a larger more dangerous world. See Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan 2008).  

Portal novels are a rhetorical convention that take the reader from the real to the fantastic. If the characters are well-rounded and the story of their plight compelling we care about them. As to the agent's statement that the story is about the fantasy world, my response is so what. More importantly, MMORPGs have shown us that people like to be transported to other worlds. They enjoy exploring and facing new creatures. In fact,
No Man's World demonstrates a definite game-like quality: one of the pleasures of reading Kelleher is encountering new creatures,  plants, or viruses. The book's biological richness and diversity of the death world plus the attractive characters make the series a delight.

No Man's World fulfills what I suspect is Abaddon's brief: create an exciting, well-written fiction that blends various fantasy memes, motifs, and metaphors into a highly readable narrative.