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Book Review – Time Machines Repaired While U Wait by K.A. Bedford

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Time Machines Repaired While U Wait (henceforth TMRWUW) is Perth writer K.A. Bedford’s fourth published novel, but it’s the first to have been published in Australia. All four of Bedford’s science fiction novels have previously been released by Edge Publications in Canada, including TMRWUW, which won Australia’s Aurealis Award for Best SF Novel in 2008, and was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in the US in 2009. Presumably this lead to Fremantle Press picking this novel up for domestic publication, which makes TMRWUW something of a breakthrough novel for its author.

And it shows. This is an assured performance in a mode that reminds me a little of my great love Philip K Dick (especially in that our protagonist, Al ‘Spider’ Webb, is a repairman) but also of authors like Robert Sheckley. The plot starts out relatively simply, with Spider picking up a dodgy used time-machine that may or may not blow up, potentially consuming the universe. There’s this thing called ‘the Bat Cave,’ which to my mind is probably the coolest gadget in the book – it’s a sort of miniature universe for performing experiments or blowing stuff up. Turns out there’s another time machine hiding inside the first (this reminds me of an old Doctor Who episode where two spaceships get merged into one – kind of) and there’s a dead body inside. And Spider, an ex-cop with a chequered past, is itching to solve the crime.

I should mention that this must be the first SF novel, or probably first novel full stop, to mention Malaga in WA and to have it as a primary location! Having grown up predominately in Marangaroo and Greenwood, I know exactly where Malaga is and the kind of environment Bedford is imagining here. The cast of central characters is memorable, consisting mainly of Spider’s ex-wife Molly (she’s a nasty piece of work), Spider’s boss ‘Dickhead’ McMahon, and even a receptionist by the name of Malaria. Later on, we get future incarnations of Spider himself, and that’s where the plot, such as it is, becomes virtually impossible to summarise here.

Spider lives in the year 2027 which, as it turns out, is much like our own time, only dirtier: “This wasn’t even the future he’d been promised in the early years of the twenty-first century. This was something entirely else, and he wanted to give it back, like something shopsoiled or the wrong size, and get something more to his liking. This future he was living in was too much like the past he knew so well.” (p. 198) For those of you who think widespread use of time-travel might not be that likely 17 years from now, there’s even a suggestion that time-travellers might have brought the machines *back* in time so that they could be used earlier. Or something. I’m not even going to go there with the time travel paradox stuff, and to an extent this is a policy that Bedford has adopted in his novel.

Further into the book, the scope widens into a far-future endgame involving a mysterious organisation known as Zeropoint. Turns out the head honcho of Zeropoint is none other than Dickhead McMahon, and more, his arch-enemy is Spider’s future self, ‘Soldier Spider.’ There are these things called the Vores who are intent on eating the entire universe, but that’s all off-stage, so most of the drama really centres on the struggles between Dickhead and the various Spiders, usually over Spider’s wife Molly, who seems to turn up dead rather too often. The plot, dear reader, truly does thicken, and I won’t attempt to dissect it further.

Did I enjoy reading TMRWUW? Yes I did. Did I find it uniformly enjoyable? No. To my mind, the near-future scenes were much more interesting than the far-future ones. The world of Malaga in 2027, replete with dodgy time-machines and, shall we say, ‘cramped’ accommodation, really came alive for me. The far-future scenes, which take place on a couple of dingy spaceships, didn’t really do it for this reader. The whole thing seemed rather too dry and abstract, and thus I was glad to see that the narrative concentrated more on the near-future time toward the end of the book.   There’s a sequel in the works, entitled Paradox Resolution No Extra Charge, so I’ll be on the lookout for that in the near-future to see how things turn out for our weary everyman, Al ‘Spider’ Webb.


Book Review – The Last Sky by Alice Nelson

August 26, 2008 1 comment

Alice Nelson’s The Last Sky is the eighth winner of Western Australia’s TAG Hungerford Award. For those who don’t know, the Hungerford is a biannual award for W.A. writers who haven’t yet published a novel length work. The award is presented by none other than Tom Hungerford himself, who is well into his nineties now. Many of Tom Hungerford’s stories have been collected in the volume Straightshooter, which is made up of three earlier collections. Nelson’s novel won the award for 2006, which was actually awarded in Feb 2007, and the book was released in August 2008. No wonder, then, that the cover says ‘Winner of the TAG Hungerford Award’ rather than ‘Winner of the TAG Hungerford Award 2006.’ But I digress. The Last Sky is an effective mood piece of a novel, reminiscent of the works of earlier TAG Hungerford Award winning writers Gail Jones and Simone Lazaroo. Nelson rather impressively carves out her own space in this literary constellation, as this review will attempt to describe.

The cast of The Last Sky is fairly small. Maya Wise is the viewpoint character, although Nelson certainly blurs the boundaries between the perspectives of different characters. She is unhappily married to an archaeologist named Joseph. During the course of her time in Hong Kong shortly before the ‘Handover’ to Chinese rule, Maya meets Ken Tiger and Clarissa. Joseph is the protege of a famous archaeologist named Aurel Stein, whose name certainly rang a bell. My own interest in Chinese history has led to have a vague idea that Aurel Stein was an explorer of the Silk Road region in the early twentieth century. It turns out that the real Aurel Stein died in 1943, at age eighty. Nelson seems to have sent Stein a few decades into his future for the purpose of this novel. Through Ken Tiger, Maya learns about the lives of Ada Lang and Victor Kadoorie. We are also introduced to Maya and Joseph’s respective families through Maya’s ‘flights of fancy’ embellished from shreds of information. It’s hard to say who the main characters of this novel truly are, or what time period the book is mostly set in. Nelson’s technique is slippery and elusive, and for the most part well realised.

The Last Sky doesn’t have a plot, at least very little of one that is occurring in Maya Wise’s present. I could probably summarise the main events in a short paragraph, and it probably wouldn’t seem very impressive, but to do so would be to misunderstand The Last Sky’s subtle art. Rather there are events being remembered (or imagined) in various times, interwoven and interlocking. It’s the kind of thing I suspect would turn a fair few readers off, but I found the technique to be interesting enough. Maya’s life seems to consist of real and imagined wanderings around Hong Kong, as well as her recollections of various events in her own past. The only forward movement in time that I can discern relates to the drawing closer of the actual ‘Handover’ date, with which the novel ends.

One of Maya’s problems is that she feels no real affinity with the Chinese around her. Fairly early on she confesses to this and it causes her to feel alienated from Hong Kong society. For me this was a slight disappointment, as it meant that the narrative lacked the insider dimension that makes Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made so exquisite. Her husband Joseph is even less tolerant of the Chinese, whom he sees as barbarians unappreciative of his works of excavation and scholarship. Maya becomes increasingly ambivalent about Joseph’s charms (or lack thereof) and as such I found him to be an unlikeable character. Maya doesn’t have much more luck with the Chinese than her husband:

“Sometimes I think that these people [the Chinese] will always be inaccessible to me. Once I told Joseph that I thought they deliberately conspired to fulfil all the western cliches about them, about their inscrutability.” (p. 127)

But Nelson’s novel is not so much about this sense of dislocation as about her imagined flights into the lives of Ken Tiger, his lover Ada, and her husband Victor Kadoorie. Maya says it best herself, neatly summarising this novel’s methodology:

“Yes, that’s the place I’d like to be. In the landscape of someone else’s past, between the closed pages of the history book.” (p. 153)

This technique is by its very nature elusive and tangential, and thus the narrative does not so much progress as unfold. Late in the story, Maya rues the fact that:

“I have clung too tightly to a world that is not my own. Ken Tiger and Ada and Victor and Clarissa and Joseph. I have spent all these months here trying to pin them down. Have I become only a prism that refracts their stories, their lives?” (p. 228)

The Last Sky is easy to read, but difficult to review. The various strands fall together neatly and yet seem insubstantial when analysed in isolation. I read this over the course of something less than four hours, in two sessions over the course of one day. This serves as a testament to this novel’s readability, for readers of this blog will know that I often abandon novels mid-course. I found the impact of the novel to build to something like a crescendo toward the end, which is of course a good thing.

On the subject of presentation, Fremantle Press have done a good job of presenting what must have been quite a short manuscript (not more than 60,000 words, I wouldn’t have thought) in such a way as to make the novel appear longer than it is. Generous margins and ample use of white space bulks this up to 250 pages, but the pages themselves breeze by. This is clever work by the publisher, who would no doubt have been mindful of the fact that the manuscript was a little on the short side for today’s market.

This is a work of not insignificant promise. Nelson shows glimpses of an ability to produce imagery as dense and as vivid as Gail Jones. Similarly, The Last Sky tantalizes the reader with visions of an exotic Eastern landscape more fully explored in the work of Simone Lazaroo. In time, Nelson may equal those luminaries on both counts.

Book Review – The Albanian by Donna Mazza

July 31, 2008 2 comments

There’s something slightly intimidating about Donna Mazza’s The Albanian, which won the 2004 TAG Hungerford Award but wasn’t published until 2007. Perhaps it’s the dark and brooding cover, maybe the title, or even the slightly imposing page length (360+), but I wasn’t certain that I would like or be able to get through this. The first few pages seemed to fulfill my expectations, but it wasn’t long before I found myself hooked into the story. I had a discussion with my sister recently about reading books through to the end (I often read as much as a third or a half of a book before giving up, she usually perseveres to the bitter end) which was fresh in my mind as I began to read. It was with slight surprise that I looked down at the page number and realised I was on page 55 already.

The Albanian begins in the city of Dubrovnik in 1989 in the old Yugoslavia. This is of immediate interest as the Balkan Wars were soon to engulf the area. Rosa is a young woman from Bunbury on her way to Istanbul. Why she is going there isn’t immediately clear, perhaps not even to Rosa herself. And so we get pages and pages of descriptions, emotions and sensations of the city and of Rosa’s thoughts. This is important to note, as there is precious little action or plot in the first section of the book. This might turn some readers away, and to be quite honest it might have turned me away too had I not especially wanted to read this book, owing to the fact that it was a TAG Hungerford Award winner.

It isn’t long, however, before we are introduced to the Albanian of the title. Things don’t start too well for this relationship, which begins on the streets of Dubrovnik. Rosa isn’t too sure what to make of the prematurely haggard, cigarette smoking Albanian, but he obvious thinks a lot of her, because he rapes or at least coerces sex from her more or less against her will. Rosa seems slightly lethargic about this, in the sense that doesn’t seem overly concerned by this turn of events, even though they were against her will. As we discover, Rosa is a curiously passive young lady, who keeps coming back to the Albanian, despite his thieving of her passport (he gives it back) and a threat that he can find her anywhere in Dubrovnik. The biggest surprise for me, however, was the discovery that Rosa was only nineteen. Nineteen? What is a nineteen year old from Bunbury doing by herself in Yugoslavia on the brink of a war that was to span a decade?

Rosa leaves Dubrovnik promising to return to her Albanian (who remains unnamed), not knowing whether she intends to return or not. There is a significant language and cultural barrier between the two, and yet Rosa feels compelled to return to him. The second part of the narrative sees Rosa tagging along with an American woman, Anya. This is where the story seems most conventional and most touristy. Nothing seems to have much of an impact on Rosa; she is dreamy and vague. Her memories of the rape and her feelings about this seem to take a while to sink in, almost as if she had been existing in some half-asleep state. Despite this, her resolve to return to Dubrovnik only intensifies.

Without wanting to merely retell the plot of The Albanian, suffice to say that there is much to-ing and fro-ing. Rosa goes back to Dubrovnik, and then after a fairly miserable time (part of which is spent locked up in a dingy room) she makes it back to Bunbury. The Bunbury section initially seems aimless (which mirrors Rosa’s own feelings) but builds in momentum as Rosa makes plans to return to her (still unnamed) Albanian, who is now in Sweden seeking political asylum. She returns to find herself more isolated than ever. One wonders why on earth she would continue down such a line of action. The Albanian, by Rosa’s own admission, is ugly, sexist, racist (against Serbs) and has little time for her.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is the description of the culture shock Rosa endures, particularly when she arrives in Sweden. Very few people speak English, even fewer want to speak to her, and the Albanian expects her to cook for him and occupy herself while he slaves away at some awful job during the day. If anything, the situation is worse when he takes her to meet other Albanians. This culture shock is especially stark in terms of how women are treated in this culture. Women are expected to cook, wait on the men until very late in the evening (clearing ashtrays and so forth), and eat leftover scraps. In other words, women have a very low standing. While the Albanian recognises that Rosa is different from Albanian women, he still expects her to adhere to many of these principles, such as standing to shake a man’s hand. Rosa has second, third and fourth thoughts about where she is and what she is doing, and this reader does too.

The other major obstacle to understanding is the language barrier itself. What exactly Rosa sees in her Albanian isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to have something to do with the sense of mystery engendered by their communication difficulties. From the Bunbury section, we see that Rosa’s home life is very safe and very boring, and as such her European adventures are in opposition to this. But as the narrative progresses, Rosa begins to understand that the Albanian cares only for his family and country (Kosove), and while these are laudable concerns they are not directly relevant to Rosa. She becomes an unwilling passenger, long overstaying her three month visa as Yugoslavia spirals towards war.

The final straw is the attack on Dubrovnik, which Rosa sees via the news. This was the city where both she and the Albanian were happiest, and now it is destroyed. There is a sense of terrible loss, and the prospect of further misery. The Albanian himself notes that if the centuries-old city is not immune from destruction at the hands of the Serbs, then what hope does a mere mortal of twenty-four years have? The future is grim, but Rosa is leaving. And so The Albanian ends on a depressing note. The lines of communication have been broken. Henceforth, Rosa will travel as an outsider to Europe’s ills, not as a mute and helpless insider.

The Albanian is an impressive first novel. It has a substance and reality that makes the places and people depicted in it seem real. When I say real, I mean I am taking this to be a kind of autobiographical narrative. It is very tempting to read Rosa as Donna Mazza herself, not least because they are around the same age. There is a sense of authenticity here in the details of life in Sweden and in the ways the streets of Dubrovnik are shown. This is, of course, a good thing. On the other hand, I felt that the structure of the narrative seemed problematic at times. The various sections do not always hang together well, and there are points in the story where momentum is lost. Again, this appears to mirror reality. I can only assume that most or all of these events actually occurred, perhaps to Mazza herself. Perhaps I am mistaken. While not my favourite of the five Hungerford winners I have fully read (The World Waiting to be Made remains my favourite), The Albanian is a very impressive debut. The notes in the back of the book say that it took Mazza seven years to write this, and I can well believe it. Hopefully it will not take her seven years to write a second novel. I look forward to Mazza’s subsequent work with interest.

Book Review – In Ecstasy by Kate McCaffrey

July 23, 2008 2 comments

In Ecstasy is Perth author Kate McCaffrey’s second novel for teenagers. It was released in April of this year by Fremantle Press, and should be widely available in W.A. and elsewhere. McCaffrey is a high school English teacher like myself (and a lot of other writers, apparently) and her novel seems directed toward students in the 14-17 age group.

In Ecstasy mainly concerns two Year 11 girls, Mia and Sophie. The novel is narrated from both points of view, and they aren’t always in ‘time sync’ with each other. This is done to heighten tension and to withhold certain information at particular times, and for the most part I thought it was done well. Without being a teenage girl myself, I felt that McCaffrey has done a good job of appealing to the particular target audience. The language and slang seem appropriate, and there was nothing that seemed out of place or jarring.

Sophie and Mia are going in different directions. At the beginning of the novel they are close friends, and have been for some time, but they drift apart over the course of the narrative. Sophie is initially confident and perhaps the more popular of the two, but this changes rapidly. Mia is initially shy and reserved, envying her friend’s looks and demeanour, but her confidence blossoms, in no small part due to the drug Ecstasy.

This book is a virtual travelogue of the pitfalls of teenage life, including but not limited to drug use (ecstasy, marijuana, alcohol, cocaine), underage sex, date rape, and teenage pregnancy. As the novel progresses, we begin to see the two girls drift apart as Sophie withdraws from the drug/party culture. (Interestingly, a similar thing happened to myself at a similar age.) Mia, however, becomes more and more embroiled in the world of drugs and parties, and her health eventually suffers as a result.

Mia’s sense of self seems to come from a couple of sources: firstly, the ecstasy itself; and secondly her relationship with the ultra popular and rich Lewis Scott. This propels her into the popularity stratosphere, but it doesn’t last long. Without wanting to spoil the novel for potential readers, everything goes pear shaped for Mia. Consequently, her story is the dominant one in this novel, and here I encountered a potential problem. Sophie ends up becoming the more sensible of the two girls, and her narrative withers away to virtually nothing. Some of her sections are less than a page in length. But Mia’s story is interesting enough to sustain this reader’s attention.

I’m not sure if McCaffrey intended to address the idea of patriarchy and sexual equality at all, but I thought the novel did so in an implicit way. Most of the girls and women in this novel are in some sense slaves to men, be it physically or emotionally (or both). There is a reverse example, in which young Dominic seems to fawn over Sophie. I have noticed myself that ‘equal rights’ has gone backwards a long way in the past twenty years or so in this country, and In Ecstasy seems to reflect that in the enormous pressure these young girls feel to conform to notions of beauty and fashion sense. It’s very sad to think that we live in a world where girls are put under these kinds of pressures, but there it is.

Ultimately, In Ecstasy is a successful novel. It manages to cleverly interweave a tale around a number of important issues teenagers may face. It avoids being too blatantly an ‘issues novel,’ while carefully mapping this terrain. Most importantly, McCaffrey does this as an insider, not an outsider to the worlds of teenage experience. Any parent with teenage children should read this, as should the teenagers themselves. Hell, my daughter isn’t yet three, and I’m already worried by some of the material in this book, such as the odious Glenn. Highly recommended.

Kate McCaffrey has a wordpress blog of her own at katemccaffrey.wordpress.com

Book Review – The Fur by Nathan Hobby

I actually read The Fur about four months ago, but because I had yet to crank up my blog at that stage, I never got around to reviewing it. Here, then, is my belated review of Nathan Hobby’s first novel, which won the TAG Hungerford Award in 2002.

The first thing to be said is that I ripped through this in about four hours. I’m sure that must be annoying – to spend years working on something that can be consumed in one afternoon and evening – but there it is. I am making a habit of binging on books lately, and The Fur was no exception. It’s about a young man by the name of Michael Sullivan, living with his parent/s in the W.A. locales of Collie, Bunbury and finally near Murdoch University. So this is a familiar terrain for W.A. readers.

Only it isn’t familiar at all. The central idea of the The Fur is, well, the fur. What is it? Who can say? The fur is some kind of fungal growth that covers everything from houses, windows to parts of people’s bodies. It’s not exactly malignant, but it’s inconvenient all the same. As a result, most of W.A. has been quarantined by the ‘Wealth, which is an ironic and apt contraction of Commonwealth. The Wealth, with the help of the UN, has rendered W.A. as some kind of exclusion zone. This reminds me of the ‘Zone’ around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine. So this is something of a science fiction narrative, and an alternate history at that: it seems that the fur first struck during the 1970s. And yet, in this alternate world, the Smashing Pumpkins still managed to release their album ‘Mellencollie and the Infinite Sadness.’ W.A., Hobby seems to be saying, is utterly insignificant to the rest of the world. Unless, of course, you happen to be living in it.

Michael Sullivan is at the crossroads of many things: school, love, family, and faith. All of these things impact upon him in the course of The Fur. Schoolwise, this is a familiar tale of trying to get through the TEE, which echoes nothing if not Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. In matters of the the heart, Michael is afflicted by his affection for a series of young women, the most significant of whom is Rebecca. In terms of family, Michael has to deal with the death of his mother and moving away from his father’s home. Finally, Michael must contend with a number of theological questions in relation to his Christian faith. In short, there’s a lot on Michael’s plate in The Fur.

As I touched on before, the science fictional elements of this story are backgrounded. There is no attempt to bring them into focus. This works surprisingly well, despite the fact that the nature of the fur itself is a massive unsolved mystery. What this story is really about is the need for acceptance, the need to grow apart from one’s parents, and the need for love. These are all basic human drives, and thus Michael Sullivan is something of an everyman. This is a book about growing up, and the harsh lessons that one learns along the way.

When I said there were harsh lessons to be learned in (and from) The Fur, I meant it. There are no happy endings here. In a sense, nothing is resolved. One aspect I found frustrating was Hobby’s practice of unfolding plot-lines, only for them to shrivel and die before flowering (so to speak). In one episode, Michael and Rebecca plan to escape to Melbourne by way of a volleyball competition. This section is where The Fur seems most conventional, as Michael saves money for a false ID by working for an importer. There is even a scene in which he drinks the highly coveted and expensive Coca Cola. But the volleyball narrative drops away, and Michael moves on. This might be more realistic – for what is life but a series of disjointed and incomplete narratives? – but it is hard on the reader nonetheless.

And thus The Fur is ultimately about frustration. Sexual frustration, familial frustration, and existential frustration. We can feel Michael’s dis-ease, his restlessness. At times The Fur can be a confronting read. But it not an unrewarding one. One hopes that Hobby can build on this early success (he completed this novel at twenty years of age) in subsequent books. From what I’ve read of his thus-far unpublished second novel, The House of Zealots, further improvement seems likely.

Book Review – Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch by Simon Haynes

“Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch” is the fourth installment in Simon Haynes’ series, and it’s another strong showing for Hal, Clunk and co. For the uninitiated, Hal Spacejock is an interstellar freight trader running cargo to and fro, but he rarely has enough credits for a nice meal, or a change of clothes for that matter. Clunk is Hal’s robot sidekick, and much of the humour stems from the banter between them. There’s nothing very futuristic about the “Hal Spacejock” series, but what it lacks in gee-whiz it makes up for in laugh out loud.

“No Free Lunch” sees Hal and Clunk arriving on the planet of Dismolle (a pun on dismal perhaps?), which resembles nothing if not a Mandurah retirement village, replete with tea cosies and knitted sweaters and whatever else. There isn’t much crime on Dismolle, so little in fact that the Peace Force consists of a brain-dead robot and a beautiful young recruit by the name of Harriet Walsh. Hal thinks it’s his lucky day, and it is: for once, something goes right for him from the start, and Ms Walsh invites him to dinner.

Unfortunately, dinner is to be served in the presence of Miranda Morgan, a high-profile Dismollean who wants Hal to take a shipment of goods to the planet Forzen for her. Harriet Walsh and Miranda Morgan loathe one another, so it’s only natural that Harriet should end up with an assignment to Forzen herself. Somehow, Clunk has been conned into carving the roast. This is exactly how the “Hal Spacejock” novels work. The plot is cleverly engineered so that the lives of seemingly unrelated characters are thrown together in the most unlikely of circumstances which, on reflection, seem perfectly logical. And, of course, trouble is never far away.

“No Free Lunch” offers us the kind of helter-skelter storyline we’ve come to expect from this series. There’s a familiar-faced stowaway, a lecherous rival for Harriet Walsh’s affections, a mine complete with some very unusual miners, and even a murder mystery to boot. Much of the action takes place on the very cold planet of Forzen (ah…Frozen?). Haynes sketches in just enough detail so that the reader can picture the setting, but not so much as to slow the story down. Settings in Spacejock novels are usually rather generic anyway. Like in Star Wars, where you’ve got the Desert planet, the City planet, the Jungle planet etc., in “No Free Lunch” we have the Dismal planet, the Frozen planet and so on.

Haynes has cranked up the ‘ribald meter’ a notch or two as well, and there are plenty of coy sexual references and double entendres. You could hardly call this racy, however; it’s all good, clean fun. Things tend to go wrong for Hal Spacejock most of the time, and the situation in “No Free Lunch” is often grim indeed. A common theme in these books is for Hal’s ship, the Volante, to be stolen or be otherwise out of action, and for Hal and Clunk to be chased around by gangs of thugs and other shifty characters. “No Free Lunch” follows this pattern, but takes the sense of danger a little further than previous books.

This sense of danger is important, because after four Spacejock novels, the reader cares for Hal and Clunk’s welfare about all else. In addition, “No Free Lunch” develops the character of Harriet Walsh in a way that earlier Spacejock novels didn’t. Another review mentioned the possibility of adding Miss Walsh as a regular character in the series. While it is true that Harriet is the best developed of the secondary characters in the Spacejock series so far, and while I can understand that readers might desire to give Hal a ‘happy ending,’ I think much of the humour comes from Hal’s bachelorhood. But it remains to be seen what role Miss Harriet might play in future Spacejock novels. And this is where the Spacejock series rises above most humorous SF: it manages to be amusing and genuinely warm at the same time.

One of the best things about this series is that each book stands alone as an individual story. Therefore, it is quite possible to start with “Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch” without having read the earlier books. There are references to the earlier books, of course, but nothing essential. However, you might find that upon completing this book, you feel the urge to read books 1, 2 and 3. The Hal Spacejock series is highly amusing and addictive fare, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

Book Review – Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

April 24, 2008 Leave a comment

“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.