Home > Book Reviews, Fremantle Press > Book Review – Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

Book Review – Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

“Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts” is the third in Simon Haynes’ humorous SF series, and it’s the best yet. Before I get into discussing this book explicitly, I want to give potential readers an idea of what makes this series different to most of the other SF on the market today. The “Hal Spacejock” books are funny, very much in the tradition of “Red Dwarf” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but there are plenty of things that make them different, and in some facets superior, to those famous titles.

For a start, there aren’t any aliens in the Spacejock universe. It took me two-and-a-half books to realise this, but it’s worth pointing out. This isn’t a gaudy, exotic, higher-state-of-consciousness type SF future; it’s a run-down, penny-pinching, two-bit swindling kind of future, and Hal Spacejock is often the biggest swindler of them all. In fact, there’s nothing especially futuristic about any of this. Spaceports are rundown and decrepit, empty places where weeds grow through the cracks in the pavement and old robots sell out of date chocolate. There are a number of parallels with early twenty-first century Australian life, and Hal’s frustrations aren’t that dissimilar to our own. Malfunctioning coffee makers, prangs with other vehicles (one with a yellow sticker, no less), internet scams and annoying voice recognition software are some of the perils Hal faces on a day to day basis.

Paradoxically, however, the Spacejock novels can’t really be described as parodies, neither of science fiction nor of modern life in general. The reason for this is that, beneath the veneer of exploding spaceships and burning fuel canisters, there lies a gentle comedy of some distinction. I found that the more of this series I read, the more I enjoyed it, largely due to the interplay between Hal and his robot friend, Clunk. This relationship is love-hate in nature, and both give as good as they get, but there’s a pleasing warmth about all of this. And robots in these novels are often the most human of entities: they make mistakes, get offended and plan alternate careers when they feel unloved. The “Hal Spacejock” novels are wholesome rather than techno-savvy, old-fashioned rather than forward looking. This is a kind of science fiction which hasn’t been written for decades, and I for one welcome its return. Having said that, Hal is a scientific luddite, a kind of ‘Golden Age of SF Anti-hero.’ I severely doubt that John W. Campbell would have approved of his attitude toward the gizmos around him.

“Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts” is set in one solar system, and there’s even a convenient map of the system at the front of the book. As usual, Hal is trying to make ends meet by running cargo shipments across empty space, and as usual there are problems galore. That doesn’t stop Hal from stopping to buying the out of date chocolates I mentioned before, and later a whole lot more confectionary. Hal is amusingly childish, so much so that the balance of power between Clunk and he seems to have shifted in the robot’s favour by this third volume. This book follows the tried and tested formula of things starting off on shaky ground, then deteriorating into a poor state indeed, before decaying still further. And we haven’t even met “Just Desserts'” antagonist yet.

Jasmin Ortiz can’t remember very much about her life at all, until she realises that she is a robot with a secret mission. In the hands of a different writer, this scene could have been genuinely horrific, but there’s nothing approaching gloominess in the Spacejock-o-sphere. Instead, Jasmin plugs herself into a power socket and gets on with the business of undertaking her mission. She will require, of course, the use of Hal’s spaceship, the Volante. And this is where it becomes obvious that Haynes has mastered his art. Specifically, Chapter Six is where Haynes picks up all the threads and weaves them together artfully: Jasmin needs a spaceship to transport her shipment; Hal needs a part for the ship which cannot be obtained locally; Clunk has signed Hal and himself up as crew on the Luna Rose; a pallet of coffee-makers arrives at the Volante, and is later mistaken for Jasmin’s shipment. And the narrative unfolds from there.

Space elevators, anti-gravity wells, and no end of spaceships populate this book, but it can’t be said that they are intrinsically important to the storyline. It’s almost as though Haynes has looked at everyday life and transmuted it into SF-speak. This is not meant as a criticism. “Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts” is a funny book because these are all-too-familiar scenarios, and Hal has all-too-human foibles. Occasionally, I felt the veneer of credibility stretching thin (such as when Hal convinces a whole base full of soldiers to salvage a sunken spaceship for him) but generally speaking Hal’s antics are amusing to say the least. The plot motorS along at a cracking rate, and there is even an unexpected twist in the tail this time around. One feels that Haynes is at the top of his game here.

Happily, readers of the “Hal Spacejock” series will not have to wait long to see if the author can top “Just Desserts.” The fourth book in the series, “Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch” is due for release at the end of May. Call me a Spacejock acolyte-I’ve been won over by the interplanetary shenanigans of Hal and Clunk, and I look forward to the fourth installment with interest.

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