Tag Archives: Tobias Buckell

Sly Mongoose, Tobias Buckell

<em class="BookTitle">Sly Mongoose</em>, Tobias Buckell

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where we meet one of our two protagonists: Timas, a teenager working in the sulphuric muck of Chilo, but stuck with outdated equipment that can’t accommodate his increasing size.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.

Ragamuffin, Tobias S. Buckell

Tor, 2007, 316 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1507-6

Isn’t it great when authors write second novels that exceed the expectations set by their first ones?

It’s even better when it happens to genuinely nice guys. Even in a field where I wish every new author the best of luck, I’m in the grandstands cheering for Tobias Buckell: I think that he brings something new and vital to the SF genre and I genuinely enjoy reading his writing. His debut, Crystal Rain, was a promising start, highly enjoyable but consciously restricted in scope. As a planetary adventure on a far-away planet with intriguing aliens and plenty of derring-do, it was a success and promised even better things.

Now Ragamuffin blows open the doors unlocked by Crystal Rain. Suddenly, we’re not stuck on the backwater planet of Nanagada; We’re in space, deep inside the Satrapy Hegemony where humans eke out a subsistence living in the cracks of an empire that doesn’t particularly care for them. From planetary adventure, Buckell moves on to space opera, setting up a fascinating universe filled with powerful alien forces, plucky resistance heroes and allies to both sides.

Our anchor during the first half of the novel is a powerful woman named Nashara, a specially-trained operative with dangerous secrets and even more powerful capabilities. On the run after killing a member of the ruling class, she’s looking to make contact with the rebel forces. There are complications along the way, including space battles, a trip through a decaying space colony and a multiplication of Nasharas.

As a reading experience, that first half is everything one could ask from a contemporary space opera: It’s fast-paced, it presents intriguing characters, it features interesting scenes and ideas, and it’s packed with action. The set-piece of that first half is pictured on the cover: A thrilling chase/shootout sequence in the microgravity environment of a spinning space colony that’s as much fun as SF ever gets. It helps that Nashara is one of the most interesting characters to pop up in recent SF.

Things change slightly past the half-point mark, as Buckell interrupts the action to rejoin the protagonists of Crystal Rain on their home planet, and brings both sets of characters together. This is where the narrative stumbles, as the flow of Nashara’s story is completely halted and readers are asked to stretch their memories back to Crystal Rain in order to catch up with the story. It takes a while for the characters to get up to speed, and I wonder if there wasn’t a better way of blending both plot strands together.

But thing soon accelerate again as various factions are brought together and set against each other. By the end of the book, the stage is set for even bigger adventures in the Satrapy universe, along with Nashara and the terrific Pepper, who’s back from Crystal Rain. This is very much a transition volume, and while readers of the first novel will be pleased by the way things a getting bigger and more important, those who want to read a complete story may want to wait until the third novel comes out to dive in.

Buckell’s prose in this second book seems even cleaner than the first book; it helps that things move along more quickly, and that the scope in inherently bigger. Thematically, Buckell deals well with themes of oppression and alienation; I particularly appreciated the way humans are portrayed as being very minor player in a known universe otherwise controlled by far more powerful players. This is the kind of things that helps break SF out of its current doldrums.

All told, it amounts to a second novel that’s better than an already quite enjoyable first novel.

Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell

Tor, 2006, 351 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31227-1

So this is the twenty-first century. Doesn’t feel much different from the last one so far, doesn’t it? Still no giant robots, lunar bases or flying cars. But sometimes, things change profoundly even when they don’t seem to. Attitudes evolve. New ideas come in. It may be more important to shift our understanding of the world as it exist than try to change it radically. As a genre, Science Fiction is no exception. While it too is pushing forward, it’s also changing from within, opening up to cultural backgrounds other than plain old white boring Anglo-Saxon roots. Look carefully, and you can see the first young wolves of twenty-first-century Science Fiction, and they’re thinking differently even when they’re following the good old recipes.

Tobias Buckell, for instance, doesn’t stretch any definition of Science Fiction with his first novel Crystal Rain. A good old rollicking adventure across a primitive landscape littered with relics of a high-tech past, Crystal Rain is not particularly original or innovative. But it it succeeds at what it attempts and benefits from Buckell’s atypical background.

It all takes place on a planet which, as far as we know in this first volume, is inhabited by two very different civilizations: The dominant Azteca and isolated Nanagada. As the story begins, the Azteca (who, as the name suggests, have pretty much adopted everything from the Aztecs… including ritual sacrifice) launch an invasion against Nanagada’s peaceful peninsula. They’ve got number and ruthlessness on their side, but there’s more to Nanagada than a small militia and a capital at the end of the railways: There’s John deBrun, our protagonist, a man who has managed to rebuild his life after being found at sea without memories. There’s a lot more to him than the simple existence he lives, and events will soon push him from one discovery to another.

An adventure story in a somewhat pulpish tradition (though with far superior prose), Crystal Rain reads like a bucket of fun. The characters are well-drawn, their adventures rarely let up and there’s a satisfying progression to our understanding of the world they live in. The cover jacket illustration has a man with a hook and a gun, parrots, airships and plenty of colour: the novel inside isn’t much different. The cultural nature of the feud between Nanagada (heavily based on Caribbean culture) and the merciless Azteca is a welcome change of pace that does much to distinguish this novel from other planetary romances. Despite a few beginner’s missteps (such as the explanatory conversation in Chapter Two), Buckell’s writing is crisp and self-assured: Don’t be surprised to wrap up this novel in a single afternoon. One fair warning: Buckell’s characters often speak using broken syntax and while the effect is a pleasant reminder of Caribbean accents, it may be distracting to some.

Unlike superficially similar novels like Karl Schroeder’s Ventus, Crystal Rain has no aspirations at pushing the SF envelope: It delivers the goods, promises more for the sequel and then stops while it’s still ahead of the game. I’m not too fond of series fiction, but don’t be worried by this volume: There’s a satisfying end to the story in this book even as some of the implications of the background suggest a much larger canvas for latter volumes. The Aztecan gods, for instance, are very real and very inhuman: Nanagada’s centuries-long isolation portends nothing good for the rest of the human race. We’ll probably learn more about it in the sequel. (And hopefully make sense of some details that look like contrivances: The focus of this novel is so tightly focused on Nanagata that it often feels like a series of arbitrary authorial decisions: “See, there’s a chain of Wicked High Mountain here… from one sea to another. Yup. Aztecas had to dig through for a hundred years. Couldn’t go above or beside it. Sea-to-sea mountains. Wicked High Mountains.” Best not to scratch the background too deeply here: just enjoy the adventure.)

But all told, this is an praiseworthy take on the good old Science Fiction adventure genre, with enough action and gadgets to make this a fun read. It doesn’t do anything new, but it does so well, and thanks to Buckell’s own cultural heritage, provides a setting with a welcome difference from what we’re used to. Others may push back the conceptual limits of SF, but Buckell is changing it from within —making it a more diverse, more accessible, more enjoyable genre. That’s not to dismiss lightly.