Expendable, James Alan Gardner

Avonova, 1997, 337 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79439-X

Being a faintly patriotic Canadian reader (born and working in Ottawa, no less!) I usually feel almost duty-bound to report favourably on the Canadian SF that I read. While Expendable isn’t bad, it does have enough deficiencies to make one wonder.

National borders aside, James Alan Gardner is a hot new author. In two years, he has published two novels (Expendables and 1998’s Commitment Hour) and a few stories, winning the 1998 Aurora Award for “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream”. He seems to be poised to become as big a success as that “other” Canadian author, Robert J. Sawyer.

But like in Sawyer’s novels, the good mixes in the eek! in Expendables, with uneven results.

Festina Ramos would be a babelicious chick if it wasn’t for the ugly wine-red birthmark covering half her face. Not living in a particularly forgiving society, she’s drafted into the exploration corps as an “expendable” contact specialist because… hey… she’s ugly.

No kidding. First pages. Is this an excuse, a bit of window-dressing, a portent of deeper reasons? No! Though we wish otherwise, ugly makes you a perfect candidate for high-risk job: “In a society where people expect to ease confortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone being killed is deeply disturbing unless… the person who dies is different. […] If the victim was not so popular, not so well-liked and above all, ugly… well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.” [Page Three] Right, mate. Explains today’s army, right?

Take a big pill of Disbelief Suspension, and call me back in the morning. Forget about the implication of such a society, or the various alternate methods by which this could be implemented. This is the make-or-break premise. Take it or leave the book.

Those who choose to remain with the book shouldn’t regret their decision. The tale of Festina’s exploits is told reasonably well. The narration is suitably sarcastic -it helps covering up the logical flaws- and the portrayal of a goof tough female heroine is always welcome. Despite many dead moments and a few suspicious scenes (as well as improbable gadgets we sense included just-for-cool), Expendable is a well-crafted SF adventure. Unlike other writers who like to present a clear-cut, rigidly straight vision of the future, Gardner puts a lot of texture, details and off-hand trivia in his prose. The result that even given the ludicrousness of the situation, it has a kind of weird legitimacy as long as one doesn’t think about it too much.

Other aspects of the book, like the over-the-top fiendish plan, are unfortunately head-scratchers when objectively considered outside the self-assigned scope of the novel. Much like a villain who acts in an evil manner for no other reasons that, heck, he’s a bad guy!

As with most other “planet mysteries”, the initial troubling setup works better than the actual revelation of the mystery. Unlikely coincidences abound, like the presence of a gallery of Festina’s friends later in the story.

Sometimes interesting, sometimes discouraging, Expendables is likely to please some and discourage others. It shows, mostly, the promise of James Alan Gardner as an author… especially if he can restrain his initial situations and tighten up his plotting. In the meantime, let’s see what else he’ll write next.

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