Wednesday, January 12, 2011

1991 Clarke and 1990 BSFA – TAKE BACK PLENTY by Colin Greenland

Science Fiction, like rock and roll, seems to flow back and forth effortlessly across the Pond. There’s a strong transatlantic tradition that goes back to the golden age (and before) which has always seen Brits like Clarke on equal footing with Yanks like Heinlein in either nation. So, it’s a bit odd to see a book perform in the awards like Take Back Plenty, which won both of the British sf awards I’m covering, and got completely ignored by all the American awards, not even receiving so much as a nomination. Odder still, I’d never heard of this novel.

It’s a space opera, though largely confined to the solar system, that follows a space hauler named Tabitha Jute and her sentient ship the Alice Liddell (whom we haven’t seen referenced since Riverworld). In this future, humans received space technology from a mysterious group of aliens called the Capellans, who retain a monopoly of sorts over trade and tech in the solar system. They take humans to the canals of Mars and to the outer solar system (in this world, fantastic visions of the planets seem to have some truth to them). There are several other weird aliens running around though, from floating space babies to the annoying little Perks to the forbidden Frasques. Jute gets caught up in some inter-species maneuvering when she takes a job from a con-man named Marco and his sapient parrot. Along the way, there are space battles, spectacular crashes, and a visit to the titular Plenty, which is an anarchic space station.

So, it’s space adventure, almost swashbuckling. The tone is fairly light and the pacing breathless. Maybe a little too breathless. The world is the main attraction here, and it’s very dense. Between the rapidly-developing plot and the barrage of alien races, the reader doesn’t have much of an opportunity to find their bearings. The novel does pause at times to give us Tabitha’s back story through a series of tales she relates to her ship’s computer, though even these are dense with new characters, species, ships, and places. Greenland’s developed a very detailed world, and it’s not entirely necessary to know all of the details. You can admire the complexity without understanding every facet. Still, it’s not the most accessible sci-fi book I’ve ever read.

In the end, Take Back Plenty is a well-written, fun book, and I can see why the British science fiction community embraced it. I can also see why it’s reputation isn’t as good in the United States – I’m not even sure it’s a cultural difference so much as a the right book hitting at the right time. This is a novel that I can easily see some sf fans loving and others not so much, depending on how willing they are to go along for the ride. Apparently, in 1990, British readers were; American readers not so much. I have to admit that I had some trouble myself. There were characters, moments, and ideas that I loved, but I’m not all that crazy about the novel as a whole. I’d still suggest that science fiction fans give it a shot though.

Also worth noting, we really are in an era of well-portrayed female protagonists after that ugly '80s drought. Tabitha is very strong and likable, and there will be others to come in the next few weeks.

Grade: B

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