Thursday, March 19, 2015

Roboteer - Alex Lamb

Roboteer is a sci-fi adventure novel. It’s full of space battles, the occasional gunfight and corridor chase, a surprisingly sympathetic central antagonist, some incredibly unsympathetic  other antagonists, an interesting universe, and a hinted at history that I’d like to see more of. It’s also Alex Lamb’s debut novel – and given that, it’s rather well done.

The centre of the text is the protagonist, Will, the ‘Roboteer’ of the title. He has, quite literally, been bred by his society to be able to link with various semi-autonomous machines, to be able to reprogram them on the fly, and to direct their actions. The society in question is a breakaway colony from earth, where genetic engineering is the only solution to a harsh environment and a low population. When we first meet Will, he’s hip deep in a space battle, hurling drones and high explosives about the sky with high abandon; shortly afterward, he’s drafted into a secret mission which may, without giving anything away, change the world.

The world is actually one of the really interesting parts of the text. We see some of Will’s home colony, battered by extreme weather, with a low population, prone to genetic engineering. We see an Earth recovering from shattering, endless conflicts, under the grip of a militant but universal religion – now driven outwards, to reclaim lost colonies, to fight, and keep fighting, to prevent fracturing into squabbling factions again. We see something of those reclaimed colonies, crushed under a government that seems uncaringly brutal. One, which specialised in entertainment, rather than engineering, seems like a sort of psychotic amusement park, populated by a demoralised populace, and a vicious, paranoid resistance.  There’s a lot of good backstory here, it’s just a shame that we don’t get to hear much more about it over the course of the text. The references are largely subtle, dropped in dialogue or as part of a tangential thought from a character, and this isn’t a bad thing – but the history here is fascinating, and deserves further exploration.

The characters are, perhaps intentionally, largely in service to the plot. There’s the gruff space captain, the sociopathic security officer, the friendly love interest …each character is serviceably written, and they fulfil their roles, but at the end of the day it feels like they’re there to drive the plot forward for the protagonist. In part it’s this focus on Will that makes the other characters lose their lustre – they don’t really have the time and space to shine, or to get more development than they need to push things along. They work as characters, but perhaps not as people – at least not in this single narrative.

On the other hand, Will, as protagonist, is very well drawn – his thoughts and feelings are laid bare to the reader, his motivations and drives brought to the surface, his actions entirely believable within those confines. Will feels awkward, feels naïve feels, sometimes, dangerous – and feels like a person.  The only other character with a similar treatment is his main antagonist, the startlingly sympathetic head researcher for an Earth weapons project. Whilst most of the Earth forces are shown to be zealots, thugs, or a combination of both, this man is given a more nuanced portrayal – we see the arguments for stability play out in his mind, the arguments against the engineering that produces individuals like Will, the arguments for subjugation and colonial domination – and whilst the reader’s sympathies are typically elsewhere, the arguments made are, at least, good ones, and help give the conflict a slightly more morally grey feel than might otherwise have been the case. That said, some of the discussion of politics feels a bit too straightforward, too right-and-wrong to be properly believable; it would have been nice if the depth given to the central antagonist was spread a little more broadly across the Earth forces.

The narrative starts with a bang, and honestly, it never really stops – the pacing is spot on. Each crisis seems to lead to another, with the occasional moment for the reader (if not the characters) to draw a quick breath before plunging on. I won’t get into detail here, for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that when Will launches into his secret mission, the Earth battlefleet coming for his world is, quite possibly the least of his problems. The prose is simple, but draws situations and environments well, and combines with the pace to never let the reader go. The developments over the course of the text seem a bit too large to be contained within one novel – I suspect we’d need to have had a book at least twice the size to have properly explored all the narrative threads in play. Still, the whole edifice ties together nicely, and the ending, if a tad convenient, wraps up the narrative well – if somewhat explosively.

Overall then, a solid debut – a fast paced, action adventure of a novel, with a good core protagonist/antagonist, within a universe I’m dying to hear more about. Worth picking up!

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