Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Slow Train to Arcturus" by Eric Flint and Dave Freer

Eric Flint has been one of my favorite authors since his first SF novel, Mother of Demons, in 1997. I like his optimistic attitude and I love his characters, who tend to be very likable people. It's easy to care what happens to them. Plus, his heroes aren't supermen who single-handedly solve every problem that comes their way. Instead, it's usually teamwork - a bunch of appealing characters working together - that wins out in the end. And finally, his villains aren't supermen, either, and sometimes they're not even all that villainous, just wrong.

At his best, Flint's novels are superbly entertaining. But sadly, he's been rather hit or miss lately. The thing is, he's been very prolific, apparently writing several books at the same time, with many different collaborators. I really think he's overextended himself. Too many of his recent books are just... OK. Yes, they're entertaining, but nothing special. And since special is what I expect from him, it's always disappointing when I don't get it.

Dave Freer has been a frequent collaborator with Flint, first with Rats, Bats, and Vats, a humorous and very entertaining SF novel - and the sequel, The Rats, the Bats, and the Ugly, which was even more fun - and with fantasy like The Shadow of the Lion (also co-authored by Mercedes Lackey). He was also the sole author of A Mankind Witch, set in the same fantasy world as the latter novel, which was lots of fun.

Given all that, I guess I was a bit disappointed with Slow Train to Arcturus. It was an entertaining read, certainly, but it wasn't one of their best efforts. Still, it wasn't bad, either. Generation ships used to be a staple of science fiction, and I was very glad to see a new take on that (with separate "pods" for different - mostly pretty bizarre - human cultures). As the huge generation ship passes near a distant solar system, aliens send a ship to check it out. But after an initial, disastrous encounter with Aryan survivalists, one surviving alien must make his way through other pods filled with strange humans in order to get home again.

So what's not to like? Yeah, it was entertaining. And I should note that I especially liked the end of the book. But Flint has done far better aliens than this. In fact, these hardly seem very alien at all. I never did get a feel for the main alien character, not even so much as to imagine what he looked like. (He was not just humanoid, but remarkably human-like, apparently.) But the aliens seemed to be just an excuse to show all the weird varieties of human beings. That was disappointing.

The human characters were fine, but again, nothing really special. OK, I did like Howard, who struggles mightily with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, but Lani never did seem realistic - and her nudist matriarchy was just ridiculous. That said, I enjoyed the way the story went, especially towards the end of it.

I certainly don't want to give you the wrong idea, because the book was fun. But I know that these two authors can do much better. That did make it disappointing.

I want to briefly mention another recent read, "Act One," a 2009 novella by Nancy Kress nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It's really a great story, with some superb characters. Like many of her SF stories, it concerns genetic engineering, and the issues aren't simple.

For now, at least, it's freely available online, so I don't think I'll go into details. But I highly recommend it. As it turns out, this story did not win the Nebula Award (the Hugo Awards haven't been decided yet), and I haven't read the story which did (it's "The Women of Nell Gwynne's" by Kage Baker). But if that's better than this one, I really need to get a copy!


Rena said...

The set up of the separated and sealed pod-worlds that couldn't communicate with each other if something went wrong filled me with rage and flailing. It was a very difficult book for me to read, especially since the societies were for the most part, extremely broken/dysfunctional.

WCG said...

Yes, but those societies WANTED to be separate (and in several cases, they would have been a grave danger to their neighbors if they hadn't been).

I had trouble with the arrangement as a realistic setup of a generation ship, just because the expense didn't seem to be worth getting rid of those people. And would you really want to send a group of Aryan survivalists off to homestead their own solar system? That seemed foolhardy in the extreme.

I liked the message behind the story, but I wasn't that crazy about the details. Still, I didn't find it difficult to read, not at all.