I've seen these books around in stores for quite some time now, but never bothered to buy one, for one reason or another. When I stumbled onto this and the sequel (The Neutronium Alchemist) in hardcover for five bucks apiece, I figured they were worth picking up. These are huge horse-choking books (the first runs 775 pages in hardcover), and looked like the sort of big, sprawling space opera that is amusing almost in spite of itself.
I was right. Boy, was I ever right. This book sprawls in a big way-- three hundred pages pass before there's a hint of a connection between the two main threads of the plot. A scientist and her top-secret Ultimate Weapon are introduced in the first chapter, then she disappears for a hundred and eighty pages, pops in to say some odd things, then vanishes again for another four or five hundred pages. A lengthy and loving description is given of the evolution and origins of a race of Mystic Alien Energy Beings, whereupon they completely drop out of the story for close to two hundred pages, before one M.A.E.B. turns up in the main plot, and promptly dies.
It's also certainly space opera-- there are merchant ships plying the spacelanes, huge sentient organic spaceships and habitats, colony worlds, ancient enigmatic alien races (along with the M.A.E.B.'s), space battles, acts of piracy, pitched warfare against implacable alien menaces, and all that good stuff. Swashes are buckled, lasers are fired, andmerchant captains swagger through spaceports looking for beautiful women to seduce.
I wasn't prepared for just how utterly daft this book was, though. It's not just that the setting is daft in the same sort of adolescent way that, say, the settings of The Long Run (The French as moustache-twirling world-dominating villians? Please, monsieur, it is to laugh...) or The Fifth Element (Tiny Lister as President of the Solar System?) are daft. Though it's that, too-- all Christian churches mysteriously re-unified in 2044 according to the handy time-line in the back of the book, a development which must've come as a great shock to pretty much every Baptist south of Baltimore. And despite the fact that the various sects of Islam seem to have re-unified (in 2064, thanks to the aforementioned timeline), they, along with the Jews and Buddhists, seem to have been sucked into some sort of interstellar void shortly thereafter (without attracting the attention of the people making the timeline), as Christians rule the galaxy... Indeed, humanity is split between "Adamist" and "Edenist" factions (the former shunning most biotech and genetic modification, the latter being genengineered telepaths), because the (unified) Pope excommunicated the first Edenist to upload his brain into a computer.
The economics are silly, too. "Terracompatible" planets are colonised by sending in a bunch of colonists with hand tools to start up an agrarian society, and working up toward industrialization from there, with the help of slave labor from involuntarily transported petty criminals ("ivets") from Earth and elsewhere. Somehow, starting at the level of the American frontier and opening the planet to Earth agriculture through back-breaking manual labor is the key to making money out of the interplanetary colonization business...
But even beyond the silliness of the setting, the plot is incomparably daft. It's so daft that it's almost inspired: On a backwater colonial world, a "waster kid" transported from Earth starts an insurgency movement among the other transportees, and, in the course of the Satanic ritual sacrifice (did I mention that they're Satanists?) of one of their overseers, accidentally traps the Mystic Alien Energy Being in some sort of interdimensional rift, allowing powerful demons from the Dungeon Dimensions to take over the bodies of the ivets (I hate it when that happens). Except they're not really powerful demons from the Dungeon Dimensions, but rather the lost souls of dead humans back from the beyond (the afterlife really, really sucks, and they want out), granted magical powers through their dimensional transferrance (they can fling firebolts from their hands, survive almost any attack, and re-shape reality in their vicinity), and able to bring more souls in to possess others by torturing people until their will snaps and they acquiesce to being possessed. Their goal is to conquer all of human-controlled space, and they are resisted in this by a cast of characters including the obligatory roguish star captain, the equally obligatory priest who's suffering a crisis of faith (but rallies to perform an exorcism on one of the possessed...), an upright Edenist and her faithful telepathic biological starship, and the beautiful daughter of interplanetary royalty who rules a biological space habitat dedicated to investigating the ruins of a long-dead alien race which appears to have committed suicide.
If that outline doesn't drive home just how transcendently silly this book is, perhaps a closer look at the characters will. On one side, we have Joshua Calvert, roguish scavenger and eventual star-captain, who wanders from planet to planet driving hard deals and amassing personal wealth. You can tell he's a good guy, because he's successful, hyper-competent, and charming enough to seduce every single woman he meets into having fantastic sex with him.
Next to him, we have Syrinx, telepathically bonded captain of the bitek starship Oenone, who is honest, upright, beautiful, and a very good captain. You can tell she's a good guy, because she's honest, well-liked, competent, and has fantastic sex with every man she meets (except Joshua-- perhaps their charismas cancel...).
Filling the femme fatale role is Marie Skibbow, reluctant colonist on the planet Lalonde, and rebellious teenager. She's smart, beautiful, and manipulative. You can tell she's trouble because she has sex with every man who isn't a blood relative, and uses her feminine wiles to manipulate them. The sex might just be fantastic, but it's hard to tell.
On the other side, we have Quinn Dexter, involuntary transportee, Satanist, and evil genius. He's dangerous, charming, and a great organizer. You can tell he's a bad guy because he has nasty violent sex with every woman he meets, and a lot of the men, too. Oh, yeah, and because he's a Satanist.
There hasn't been a cast of characters this ridiculously oversexed since Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant series, or any teen show appearing on Fox. Happily for most readers past puberty, the sex, while often fantastic, is nowhere near as explicit (or just plain icky) as that in Anthony's magnum opus, though it's more explciit than Fox can get away with.
There's even a certain Stephen R. Donaldson quality to the writing, just in case you thought there was something lacking in the plot and characters, particularly in the late going when the action really picks up:
The kiloton nuke detonated at the bottom of a twenty metre crater in the river. Its initial blast pulse was punched straight up into the core of the transplanarity ferment raging above. A solar fireball arose from the water with splendid inevitability, and the entire river seemed to lift with it. Energy in every spectrum poured outwards, smashing solid matter apart. None of those lining the harbour wall really knew what was happening. Their stolen bodies disintegrated before the nerve impulses could reach the brain. Only after annihilation, when the possessing souls found themselves back in the bestial beyond, did the truth dawn.
Two seconds after the bomb exploded, a forty-metre wall of water moving at near-sonic speed slammed into [town]. And the dead, ensconced in their beautiful new mansions and fanciful castles, died again in their tens of thousands beneath the usurping totem of the radiant mushroom cloud.
(This passage is only a few pages from the end, and is a bit of a spoiler (less so with the name of the town obscured, I hope), but "usurping totem of the radiant mushroom cloud" was just too good to pass up...)
And yet, there's something oddly compelling about the book. The plot and characters are simply preposterous, and even when the thesaurus is safely out of reach, the writing is nothing to write home about (the viewpoint frequently shifts characters midway through a scene, sometimes without so much as a paragraph break, and characters wander in and out of the story like partygoers trying to locate the bathroom...), and yet there's something compulsively readable about it. Much of the book is really, really bad, but it's an Evil Dead 2 kind of bad-- you can almost see Bruce Campbell playing Joshua Calvert... It's trash, but on some level, it knows it's trash, and plays it to the hilt.
This is not a book to give to your high-school English teacher who sneers at SF (unless you're really desperate to get kicked out of school...). But for a regular reader of the genre, preferably one who enjoys Mystery Science Theater and sees the humor in The Eye of Argon, this can be a tremendously entertaining book. I've already started reading the second volume...