Tor, 2008, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1920-3
With three linked novels under his belt (plus a New York Times best-selling Halo tie-in), Tobias Buckell has established his own brand of Science Fiction: action-adventure in the classical mold, but filtered through a sensibility that differs from the usual SF norm.
The first surprise in Sly Mongoose is that it takes place decades after the events of Ragamuffin, at a time when the Satrap Hegemony has been thoroughly dismantled: Those who were expecting a series of novels describing the war between humans and their former masters will have to make with an epilogue. But the aftermath of war is never pleasant, and as the novel begins, recurring series hero Pepper crash-lands on a floating city to warn them of an impending threat: “groaning, stumbling, dumb-as-f…, old-school zombies.” [P.46.]
Oh yeah; zombies. But just to make things a little bit more interesting, Buckell isn’t content with your run-of-the-mill planetary apocalypse scenario featuring mass-minded fast zombies. Oh no: this time, the zombie plague takes place far above the surface, first in a spaceship and then on the floating cities above Chilo, a Venus-like planet where the only livable environment is above the clouds of sulphuric acid.
That’s where we meet one of our two protagonists: Timas, a teenager working in the sulphuric muck of Chilo, but stuck with outdated equipment that can’t accommodate his increasing size. The arrival of series protagonist Pepper in the middle of Timas’ life doesn’t happen gracefully: Forced to crash-land on Chilo after jumping out of a spaceship without a parachute (hey, these things happen), Pepper’s arrival leads to the death of one of Timas’ friends, an event that will have consequences through the story.
In-between Pepper’s zombie warnings and the city-smashing finale, we get new models of politics, an expansion of a culture first introduced in Buckell’s debut Crystal Rain, severe character trauma, big alien schemes, galactic repercussions and all that good stuff. As with his previous novels, Buckell is able to integrate a high concept (Zombiiies! In spaaace!) and make it work within a far more complex framework.
Sly Mongoose is also an evolution in Buckell’s work in that it explores Pepper’s recurring character in a deeper fashion than before. We know that when Pepper’s on the scene, things will blow up and be solved. What this third novel shows is that these actions don’t happen in a vacuum: The relationship between Pepper and Timas is strained by the heroics required of an action/adventure novel, and it leads to a pretty good scene in which Pepper tells his younger companion that he wouldn’t ask him anything he wouldn’t do… which isn’t too reassuring considering what Pepper’s enhanced body and ruthless mind can conceive and sustain. A strong epilogue will reassure Pepper fans by suggesting that there are quite a few more adventures in store for him.
Placed in the context of Buckell’s output so far, Sly Mongoose doesn’t have the structural problems that plagues the second half of Ragamuffin and the ever-leaner prose shows Buckell’s improving tradecraft since Crystal Rain. But this third novel stops short of kicking Buckell’s fiction to a superior level. Now that he has shown his mastery of basic SF plot templates, this reader’s expectations become more demanding. As it is, his three novels so far show a competent mid-list SF writer with an unusual skill for cultural details… but what’s stopping him from more ambitious material? Now that he’s added “New York Times best-selling author” to his list of credentials, let’s see him move to the forefront of SF writers.