Paragaea: A Planetary Romance
by Chris Roberson
Review by John Berlyne
Pyr Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1591024447
Date: 23 May, 2006 List Price £8.14 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I admit it - I've brought you here under false pretences this month! There's nothing remotely British about Chris Roberson's book Paragaea - with the exception of one of the main characters. Other than that, it's as American as apple pie - a US release by a US writer celebrating a very American science fiction convention, and in fact it's already been reviewed here on Sfrevu by Paul Haggerty back in our May issue (and he loved it too!). In truth, I've no business whatsoever reviewing it in the UK section of the August issue - except that is, for the fact that there have to be some perks of being on the editorial team here at SFRevu!
The cover copy of Paragaea has a lot to answer for! On the rear cover there is a loud proclamation that Paragaea contains "Pterosaur-Riding Pirates, Jaguar Men and Ancient Androids" and much as I tried, I just couldn't resist the promise of such a book - I mean, come on...what self-respecting science fiction fan could resist that?!!
Paragaea absolutely fulfils the promise of its subtitle "A Planetary Romance" – for it is a romantic piece on any number of levels. Essentially the novel is brave, bold homage to the works of the old timer SF masters - specifically mentioned are Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Alex Raymond (creator of Flash Gordon), all of whom created stories set against a backdrop of exotic planets and thrilled readers with tales of daring-do and swashing buckles.
By today's standards, where written SF is often regarded (by those who are involved in it at least) as a literary field as much as it is a popular entertainment, such works are looked upon with nostalgic affection, crude though they often were in construction and subtlety. Such works have endured, but are not really regarded as classics - not in the same way as, say, The War of The Worlds is for example. Regardless of this, Roberson's playful homage captures perfectly the romantic escapism we associate with these works, all the while wisely steering clear of the traits that might perhaps tarnish the experience for a modern audience. It is clearly a deliberate choice of Roberson's to have a strong female lead in Paragaea, as oppose to the simpering, winsome love interest as might have been written in a bygone age.
What Roberson does pick out with great success is the spirit of adventure that these soft SF writers evoked in their work. On these terms Paragaea is a romp, and a hugely enjoyable one at that. It begins with the launch of a Russian rocket at the height of the space race. The capsule carrying Leena Chirkov, only the second female cosmonaut ever to leave the confines of Earth encounters a ...something... as it orbits the planet and in the blink of an eye, Leena is staring down not at familiar continents, but at the surface of an alien planet. Her mission calculations not prepared for this eventuality, her orbit begins to degrade and after the roughest of landings, by some miracle she finds herself alive on the planet's surface. It is Earth-like, but she's definitely no longer in Kansas. Almost immediately she is set upon and captured by a group of Jaguar Men - her astonishment at still being alive replaced by her astonishment at seeing these bipedal big cat monsters. Before long though, her captors are themselves under attack and Leena is rescued. Her liberators introduce themselves as Hieronymus Bonaventure - a Royal Navy midshipman, himself wrenched from his own time and place on Earth and mysteriously stranded here on Paragaea - and Balam, another Jaguar Man, but a friendly one!
Unsurprisingly, Leena early experiences in Roberson's novel are largely described in terms of bafflement and problems with language, but very quickly the narrative turns towards the accomplishing of her single-minded goal - to return home. From her new companions - who to all intents and purposes are little more than vagabond hired swords (with, perhaps, slightly nobler scruples), Leena learns that Paragaea is a sort of skewed parallel Earth, populated by all manner of exotic hybrid flora and fauna and with far a richer and far more ancient history. Furthermore she learns that there are 'gates' that are rumoured to open between the two worlds, though true knowledge of their whereabouts is shrouded in myth, folklore, mysticism and dogma.
The bulk of the story then is a quest - and with this central motive gluing the narrative together, Roberson is at liberty to take the reader to wherever his imagination calls them - and, as promised on the rear cover, we meet some wild folks in some wild places. Paragea is therefore a montage of events, a delicious mish-mash of unlikely goings-on in exotic settings, none of which bear much relation to each other but all of which slot neatly into the main story arc. And throughout, Roberson remains absolutely faithful to his inspiration, for Paragaea has all the excitement one remembers from Saturday Morning Cinema - that huge sense of fun and anticipation for where the story will take us in the next chapter/instalment.
Roberson certainly achieves his goal with Paragaea - while not, perhaps exactly re-inventing this genre, he certainly dusts it off and opens the way for a modern audience to appreciate its hoary old charms. Sure, there's some pretty clunky dialogue thrown in along the way but this merely adds to the charm of the piece. That the possibilities are left open for further adventures is an exciting prospect indeed. Until then, fans (and you'll become one once you've read Paragaea) of Roberson's work will want to visit the author's web site and the official Paragaea site, where an entire prequel novel Set The Seas on Fire is available for download.