Phobos, Ty Drago

Tor, 2003, 431 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34454-8

Calling a Science Fiction novel “old school” usually carries along a grudging respect, a tacit acknowledgement that the novel in question eschews modern complications in order to deliver a comfortable reading experience. Old school SF is what some older readers are looking for when they evoke the memory of Asimov and Heinlein, or any of the writers that were active when said readers enjoyed reading SF.

But when I call Ty Drago’s Phobos an old-school Science Fiction novel, I’m deliberately using the word as criticism: I mean that the book does not have the level of sophistication we can expect from today’s SF. It features sub-standard writing, stock characters, conventional plot elements and numerous plausibility problems. I’m not a demanding reader in terms of prose style and other literary values, yet found myself grinding my teeth during the entire book.

I would say that the few pages are promising, but that’s not quite true given how they set a tone that can only be improved upon. In short order, Drago sets up a problematic universe in which colonized Mars is a hotbed of prejudice between the Terrans and the Mars-born colonists. This would be fine if it was developed with some skill, but this bit of invented racism never really rises above the level of a handy plot convenience. (“Cheap convenient bigotry! Straight out of central plot emporium! On sale all week!”) From the first few pages, it’s obvious that the writing doesn’t rise above utilitarianism, and that Drago’s references are so old-fashioned that they reek of pulp mustiness. (The Martian characters use dynamite, of all the explosives out there… Can’t someone talk to them about the price/power value of post-nineteenth-century explosives?)

Such conveniences abound, of course, especially when you start looking too closely as the inner workings of the book’s universe. There’s “Barsoonium”, for instance, a handy alloy that somehow can only be mined from Mars —being apparently impervious to any industrial replication process… in a society where nanotech nonetheless seems to be working quite well.

This sloppiness carries over to the arid prose, which carries the story along but can’t do anything to hide the biggest problems with the plot, or even the clumsy way everything is put together. Drago doesn’t show any more subtlety with the swearing, with the infelicitous choice of “Deimos!” as the epithet of choice. The book is chiefly concerned about a monster-hunt, but never mind plausibility given how the mystery ends up being caused by a magical application of nanotech that should have been obvious to half the characters out there. There’s some frantic hand-waving about a gravity-creating device, but by that time my plausibility meter was well into negative values, so this didn’t do much to change my opinion of the book. Politically, scientifically, culturally, this is amateur-hour stuff: It never holds up to scrutiny and is the clearest indication of the difference between this “old school” pulp-era novel and the more sophisticated contemporary SF.

As for the plot itself, well… it’s a plot. Things happen. Characters do things. Silly things, mind-numbing things, didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-earlier things, but things nonetheless. From the point of view of an undemanding audience, Phobos at least has the required elements for a reading experience. But if you’re expecting something more… oh, are you setting yourself up for a disappointment.

Given the somewhat indifferent quality of the book, I’m very, very surprised this was published in its current state by Tor. Goodness knows I was expecting something better than this when I bought it -–in retrospect, the lack of editor credits on the copyright page might have been a hint that it wasn’t up to their usual standards. In picking a book from the slush-pile for publication, some fall squarely on the publish/don’t publish line. This is a perfect test case: Neither good enough to be a sure-fire pick, but not bad enough to be dismissed out of hand.

Given my above caveat about describing this book as “old school”, the remaining saving grace of the book (in fact, the reason why I’m not being as gratuitously sarcastic as I usually am with substandard novels) is, indeed, that it’s an old school Science Fiction novel. I’m a big-enough fan of the genre that even when it’s less than satisfying, I have the warm and fuzzy feeling of slipping in a comfortable environment where even the silliest mistakes can feel like forgivable missteps. But chances are that not everyone will share my unconditional comfort with such books: It would pain me to recommend this novel to anyone else, especially if they’re looking to disprove their worst misconceptions about SF.

[November 2006: This review got a fair amount of traffic from bksp.org, a gated online community that features, among other authors, Ty Drago.]

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