Tag Archives: Susan R. Matthews

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!

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R. Matthews

Avonova, 1997, 372 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78913-2

Do you trust cover blurbs?

Most of the time, I do. I tend to stick with publishers who know what their audience expect, so I’m rarely disappointed by the relation between plot summary blurbs and actual novel content (a pleasant exception are Robert J. Sawyer’s novels, when you get more in the book than what is presupposed by the blurb, but I digress…) (Cover illustrations are another entirely different thing, but I’ll stop talking about that right now lest I begin to digress again…)

But do you trust author’s comments on book covers? (“Good” -Author Nonymous) Here, the situation’s more complex, depending on your gullibility quotient, you appreciation of Author Nonymous, and all that’s in between. But most of the time, you can get clues. If there’s something like (“I loved it” -Saddam Hussein), then…

(Book reviewers can also extract useful pointers for their reviews by re-reading other people’s comments… but it’s not like I do that… ahem… oh, seems like I’m digressing again!)

So when you see something like (“Susan R. Matthews simply doesn’t flinch” -Stephen R. Donaldson), you just know that you’re holding potentially nauseous material. Donaldson, renowned as the author of some of the most displeasing cycles around (The Gap cycle, the Chronicles of Thomas the Uncovenant, etc…) calling Matthews unflinching? A bit like: Pot to Kettle; “Hey wow, I like your shade of black!”

So what is An exchange of Hostages? At the core, it’s yet another one of those “training-camp” novels, like Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game and shelves of other SF books. Who says training camp also says “personal development” novel, and so An Exchange of Hostages is the story of Andrej Koscuisko, heir to an empire and “promising young surgeon”. At the beginning of the story, he enters (against his will, but what can you say when your daddy’s the Big Boss?) an academy where they train Ship Inquisitors. In other words, he’s going to learn the fine art of… torture.

Ouch.

While at this point some readers are hurtling the book against a wall, others are raising the objection that a civilized galactic empire can’t expect to use torture as a formal part of their judiciary system. While that’s an excellent objection, it’s also irrelevant: An Exchange of Hostages is one of those stories (much like fantasy-type allegories) which depend on a single assumed factor. You either swallow it or you don’t.

This is an extraordinarily powerful novel. As his training advances, Koscuisko will find out that his training and skills as surgeon at first hinder, then facilitate his progress. Much like the reader, he will be disgusted by the tasks he’ll be asked to performed, then achieve a more jaded outlook. Along the way, he will make unexpected friends. The protagonist’s relation with his personal slave is one of the surprises of the novel.

It’s never a pleasing story. But it’s engrossing reading. Despite all my preconceptions, I found myself devouring pages after pages, finding out more about Kocuisko’s fate. As a novel, An Exchange of Hostages would be more or less unremarkable if it wasn’t for the special nature of the training camp. As such, I expect opinion to be sharply polarized around the novel, with definite camps for or against it.

In view of this, the only recommendation I can give is that you have to like hard edges, uncompromising plot-lines and quiet, character-driven SF to like this one. Even then, I think a lot of potential readers will abandon the book before completing it. It remains to be seen what else Matthews will write next.

[April 1998: Prisoner of Conscience is the second book in Matthews’s series about a doctor-cum-torturer in an interstellar empire heavily dependant on this form of… interrogation. The first volume, An Exchange of Hostages wasn’t for squeamish readers, but was an interesting bildungsroman with well-defined characters, an engrossing plot and a few hard lessons. Prisoner of Conscience loses most of these attributes. The result is an excruciatingly long and uninvolving read. Following the rather trivial plot of this second book, I can see this series becoming something like an aimless eight-book series especially beloved by S&M enthusiasts. A plot should back up Matthews’s bloodlust, or else it’s just torture for us as well as the characters. For me at least, the series probably stops here.]