Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost

Space Captain Smith is the first in Toby Frost’s Chronicles of Isambard Smith series. It’s sci-fi comedy, mixed with high adventure, in a world where the British Empire is a space-faring power, with all the social attitudes of the 19th century. It’s a no-frill adventure story, which is also sometimes pretty darn funny.

The world of Captain Smith is one that is both different and familiar. On the one hand, it’s quickly established to be a world of high technology. There’s blasters. There’s soaring, graceful ships, leaping across the stars. There’s aliens. There’s intergalactic Empires. Frost manages to make us aware of some of these things through inference, though others – such as the provision of spacegoing ships – are integral to the plot. As our protagonist stumbles from disaster to catastrophe, he runs afoul of a great many things which are strange, and often wonderful or terrifying in their novelty.

And then there’s the familiar. Our protagonist starts off in the British Empire. Except that this British Empire has several star systems under it’s belt. It also has rather a lot of starships and guns, which take the place of cannon and navy. What it’s kept hold of, however, are Victorian social mores. This is handwavingly explained at one stage, but it’s perfectly acceptable as an entertaining conceit. The British march around the place, being rude to aliens, and occasionally saving the universe. It’s a place instantly familiar to anyone who ever read or watched Sharpe on television, except with ray guns instead of rapiers.

The characters are an interesting mix. The eponymous Captain Smith is a braggard, with a heart made, if not of gold, then at least of tin. He, deliberately one assumes, embodies the best and worst of what could be thought of as British characteristics – proud, shading to arrogant, determined to be fair, but willing to press an advantage. He gets a smidge of development over the course of the narrative, largely coming to regard other members of his crew as at least marginally valuable. There’s a gradual shift toward a slightly more humane character, and it’s represented in both actions and internal monologue – it’s slow, believable, and makes for surprisingly affecting reading.

Smith is ably assisted by his ships crew – including a runaway android, designed for dubious purposes, a murderous alien, who regards lethal missions as a sort of holiday, and a mysterious woman, whose main talent appears to be being a bit of a hippy. They don’t get quite the sense of an arc that Smith does – but there is a growing sense of camaraderie and a sense of acceptance running through the text, which was nice to watch growing udner the characters noses. They still don’t feel fleshed out enough, but they’re more than collections of traits, so overall, I shan’t complain too strongly.

From a plot standpoint, this is an old fashioned adventure. Smith and his crew leap from the jaws of death repeatedly, often by accident. They’re also quite good at leaping into the jaws of death, and that’s usually not on purpose either. There’s malevolent aliens, irritating bureaucrats, and a galaxy to save. It sets off at a fairly swift pace, and charges ahead throughout – it felt like you didn’t have room to breathe at times, but perhaps enough breath to keep up. The jokes are laced thick and fast through the dialogue and the situations the cast find themselves in – and whilst some of these do fall flat, some raised a chuckle, and several got a real laugh. It’s a rarity to find this fusion of adventure and humour, and Frost has pulled it off quite well.

Is it worth reading? Well, if you’re in the mood for that sort of adventure-tale in space, with a lashing of laughter, then yes, I’d say so. It’s a great popcorn read, and I’m eyeing the sequel with some interest.

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