Stalker Analog, Mel Odom

ROC, 1993, 367 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45257-7

Legend has it that the late famous Amazing editor John Campbell used to tell writers that he didn’t want their old recycled western stories. After all, it’s so easy to go through an old story and replace every “John” with “Blorip”, “horse” with “tronaap” and “colt” with “pistolaser”. SF, argued Campbell, must be -in addition to everything else- uniquely SF. Remove the SF element from the SF story, and there should be no coherent story.

I never expect too much from ROC books, and Stalker Analog finely upholds this publisher’s track record as an inconsistent peddler of sorta-SF. Examples of fantasy disguising as SF from ROC are numerous (see a good proportion of Emily Devenport’s production, or a large part of the stories in “SF” anthologies like Future Net) and it’s no coincidence if their books tend to be forgotten come award time and if you have a hard time finding ROC books in mall libraries. Put put it simply, they don’t measure up to the good publishers in the field of SF.

(There’s also an issue of boring covers, which is not worth getting into today.)

Stalker Analog starts out as a pretty good illustration of what I mean by sorta-SF. It takes place in a near-future Houston economically dominated by the Japanese and stars a young female cop named Bethany Shay. After an opening sequence where Shay busts up a casino, the real story begins: A serial murderer in the Jack-the-Ripper tradition is terrorizing the city, and it’s up to Bethany to find him/her.

Up to maybe the two-third of the book, we get a police procedural—a rather enjoyable one, but a police procedural nonetheless. There are a few hints of cyberspace stuff and oh-so-early-nineties Japanese influence, but nothing you couldn’t excise easily from the novel.

It’s only in its final hundred pages that the plot moves resolutely in Science-Fiction territory, and then only to conclude on a note strongly reminescent of ROBOCOP II. Elsewhere, there isn’t much to attach the novel to pure SF… not even a few high-tech gadgets.

Interestingly, apart from a brief flash of interest at the end, the novel was substantially weaker in its SF phase. The police procedural is well-handled, and the character development is worth it. When all rules fly out to cyberspace, however, the novel loses a lot of its coherency and evolves in ways that aren’t really clear or satisfying.

Too bad; I would have liked to see a version of Stalker Analog as a modern crime novel. The elements for a good procedural are all there, and Odom can really write in a manner to hold our attention. The plotting is also quite good, moving rapidly from one point to another. Finally, the action scenes are well described, which is always a must for action thrillers of this type.

In the meantime, ROC remains a publisher without a clear idea of what SF stories should be. It’s not enough to add “Analog” to a generic title to get a science-fiction novel: you also have to put some of it in the plot too.

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