Deepdrive, Alexander Jablokov

Avon EOS, 1998, 311 pages, C$19.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97636-6

Once in a while comes a book that’s not easily reviewable. Whereas most books are easily criticized as being good/bad, some aren’t as simply analyzed. Deepdrive is a case in point; a book with some terrific aspects that nevertheless fails at being a satisfying read.

One of Deepdrive‘s best characteristics is the setting: In a future far removed from us, the solar system has been colonized by both humans and aliens. Strange creatures are transforming Venus. Aliens on Mercury fire a gigantic gun at the sun for mysterious purposes. Dozen of races people the systems alongside humans, most often doing things that other races can’t figure out. These aliens are here, but they can’t go elsewhere: The faster-than-light engines (“deepdrives”) they used to enter the system all self-destructed upon arrival, thus preventing these pesky humans from escaping. Spurred by suspicious rumors, several humans have tried to find out working drives, without success.

Wonderful setting; does Jablokov do anything with it? The plot eventually set in motion resides around an alien called Ripi, a lone representative of his race who’s held in “protective custody” on Venus. Our story begins as a team of mercenaries is sent to recover Ripi. After all, maybe he knows the secret of the deepdrive…

But, as we could expect, things go wrong, Ripi is found, lost, retrieved and let go again. Our mercs fight the police, squabble among themselves, discover each other’s secrets, disband, come together, etc…

The above might have been a superb space adventure in the most classical sense, a fast-paced action-filled SF story with the fun hallmarks of the genre’s most enjoyable romp. Well, in the final analysis it is not.

And it’s fiendishly hard to figure out why.

My first thought was that the prose style was somehow lacking in readability, but that doesn’t turn out to be true: Though Jablokov doesn’t grab our attention like the masters (Heinlein, Varley, etc…) can, he’s similarly removed from the undecipherable prose of his more “literary” counterparts.

Things get more complex when we look at the characters. Despite assembling a motley group of different personalities as his mercenary team, Jablokov has given us no real hero. I had to keep reminding myself that his protagonists were human, because they didn’t act in any manner similar to ours. In trying to be interesting, Jablokov might have gone too far in the realm of the bizarre and the alien. The result is that we can’t focus on anyone and can’t relate to any character.

It gets worse when considering the story from afar. The recovery of Ripi is only the beginning of the adventure. The problem is that everything that follows is less interesting than the first hundred pages. It’s hard to be satisfied with a novel whose dramatic high-point comes at the beginning. I found myself scanning rather than reading because I just couldn’t get interested in the various events.

The novel might have been too long to be snappy, it might have been too short to give us the chance to be interested in the characters. But whatever the reason, the result is not successful. Hollywood often has the tendency to recycle original premises in other films; I find myself wishing for a future novel doing exactly that from Deepdrive.

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