Colony Fleet, Susan R. Matthews

Avon EOS, 2000, 296 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-80316-X

According to Clute and Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, the first genre treatment of the generation-spaceship idea was published in 1940, as Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years”. Explain Nicholls, “the theme of social change and degeneration inaugurated by Wilcox was to become the dominant motif of such stories.” [P.480]

Let’s just say that in light of this, Susan R. Matthews’ Colony Fleet breaks no new conceptual ground even sixty years later. In this novel, unrelated to her infamous “Andrej Koscuisko, pro torturer” sequence, we predictably find a Colony Fleet nearing its destination, yet hampered by a rigid social system divided between engineers, mechanics and administrators. (Original, isn’t it? It’s like… another typical SF over-simplification! And they say the genre has no memory of its history…) As the book opens, our heroine -Hillbrane Harkover- fails her rite of passage / oral thesis defense. Double-crossed by her would-be lover she is found unworthy of “Jneer” status and relegated to the lower “Mechs” class. Hillbrane’s just too good for that, however, and before long she finds herself sent away on the first colonizing mission… along with both her old boyfriend and her new beau.

Oh boy! A wacky soap opera ensues! Mechs versu Jneers versus Admins in a Bollywood-worthy musical romance that will leave you smiling and dancing! All resolved though a dash of nanomancy and the instant cloning of our heroine! Songs and dances carry the plot away!

Err, sorry: I got carried away in a far more enjoyable alternate plot. What really happens in Colony Fleet is rather more restrained and certainly grimmer; the old boyfriend’s nothing but dumb trouble for himself and for everyone else involved. If nothing is done, it’s the colony itself which will die.

There’s not denying that Colony Fleet takes a long time to get going. The seemingly trivial point that casts our heroine out of Jneer ranks may seem exasperating. Her gradual adaptation to a “lower” class (even as she plots the revolution that will bring everything back in harmony) is just as bad; we’re seen this before.

And yet, just as it looks as if the book couldn’t possibly get any blander, Colony Fleet steps off the fleet and onto the planet. Suddenly, everything comes into focus: there are real conflicts and real issues at stakes. The incompetent boyfriend may have been a frustrating moron back home, but on this planet he’s a real threat to everyone involved. (Interestingly enough, he truly becomes a loathsome character this way, far more than this flippant summary might indicate) It’s at the colony that Hillbrane’s struggle becomes far more important than every before.

And so Colony Fleet manages to distinguish itself from countless other generation ship stories. Not by being strikingly original in itself, but by delivering a real story, with engaging characters and high-enough stakes. The inevitable conclusion isn’t much of a surprise, but it works. The science is in the background, though there’s probably a thematic resonance to be found in the engineer’s power-grab over the other two classes. (“Warning! Empowered nerds”, maybe?)

After Matthew’s torture-series novel, this isn’t as provocative nor as memorable, but it should ultimately be more accessible. Alas, there isn’t much that’s new or interesting; you could even say there’s only one-half of an okay novel in Colony Fleet. Still, if you’re looking for middle-of-the pack straightforward SF entertainment, this may very well be the novel for you. Hoo-ha: that’s my ringing endorsement!

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