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Alphanauts by J. Brian Clarke
Review by Ernest Lilley
EDGE Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1894063147
Date: 01 September, 2006 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Clarke has been writing sf short stories since the golden age. He's sold to Campbell and he's still coming up with new stories for the mags. In Alphanauts (one of his characters comments that he hates the name, and I couldn't agree more, or wonder why the author kept it) he links several stories published in Analog together to create a larger work about the colonization of a world orbiting Alpha Centauri. It's full of good, if well used, colony story ideas, but unless you've never read any of this stuff, it's too full. The contents of Clarke's cart include: a rural egalitarian colony on a planet around Alpha Centauri, two derelict spaceships fighting a forgotten war, ship brains, lost colonies, AIs, malevolent alien consciousness from another dimension which take over the crew, flying telepathic cats, nanites aplenty, global pandemic, asteroid impact, lunar colonials, fusion slowboat colony ships, FTL drives, Fusion powered asteroid ships, clone warriors, white supremacists (represented by a hot blond...do you have any idea how ambivalent that is?), and several characters that talk like Spock. Not to mention the hostile human colonists coming on the next boat. It's a wonder that he didn't include generation ships with colonists that had forgotten they were star travelers, and hordes of killer critters trying to overrun the settlement.

If you're not plagued by having read read McCaffrey, Steele, Kress, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Norton, Anderson and every Trek novel or original series episode ever made you'll find this all fresh and exciting. If not, you may still find it a fun romp on the frontier, but there's not much new under the binary suns. About the only original idea in the book comes at the beginning, in the form of a an allergic reaction to Earth which space farers are supposed to get if they stay away three years or more. Evidentially in space you can't go home again. At the other end of the book we run into the notion that you can deprogram white supremacists to see a rainbow point of view if you just let them get to know you. Maybe it just works better if you have telepathic aliens to rewire their brains into patterns of "right-think." But either way, both ideas stretch my credulity badly.

I'm sorry to be so hard on this book, because it's not a bad read once you get past the E.A.S. bit and back to the colony story. No, it's not as well done as say, Allen Steele's Coyote trilogy, or Nancy Kress' Crossfire , both of which cover much of the same territory, but with more authority. And both of which take several books to cover the same ground that Clark does in about 300 pages. But its heart is in the right place, and if you consider it as a juvenile, it's actually pretty engaging.

It's my opinion that the author keeps tossing in new threats in order to extricate himself from having to deal with the complexity of the situations he's getting himself into. Everything works out for the best, time and time again, but nobody much has to deal with consequences or poor choices.

So, I've got two recommendations. One for anyone whose hand is hovering over Aphanauts in the bookstore, and one for the author. If you're over 14, and have already read some classic SF, pull you hand back and go read some Iain Banks, Vernor Vinge, Jack McDevitt, or Ian Mcleod. If, on the other hand, you're younger than that and just discovering SF, go ahead. Buy it. You'll get a short course in classic space colony fiction, which will leave you wanting more, and you'll have fun in the books to come seeing how all these ideas relate to other stories. I wouldn't even mind seeing it read as part of a junior high course in SF. As for the author, I'd suggest that he narrow his focus to one big idea per story, and see if he could put a few more ideas into his character's heads.


Our Readers Respond

From: J Brian Clarke:
I wrote Alphanauts. All the reviews, including Mr Liley's, range the gamut from enthusiastic to not-so, which I suppose is par even for best-sellers. But rather than take on specific comments, I prefer to present a few generalizations to hopefully cast light on the various pros and cons.

Yes, Alphanauts is in many respects old fashioned SF. It is exactly what I intended. A lot happens within its modest 325 pages, too, which is also intended. Three or four hundred thousand word novels may look impressive on the bookshelf, but words are just that...words. It is their arrangement, conciseness and economy of use which tells the story. Poets know this and so do cartoonists. In fact I was flattered by one review which describes Alphanauts as a 'cartoon done with broad brush strokes' I had a story to tell and characters to describe, and I tried to do it in a manner which keeps the reader involved without encumbrances such as countless pages devoted to Earth politics or the technical details of spaceships. Such references do belong, but in this case I used them as sparingly as possible.

I am a great fan of the writer's admonition 'show don't tell', especially in the development of characters; human and otherwise. A character's response to a given situation or crisis can be more revealing than any amount of exposition. A little physical description helps of course, although with a single exception I tried to avoid matching physical appearance to character. The exception (which Mr Liley noted) is the female blond 'manager' introduced in the final section of the book. Not so much a caricature as a type, I placed her in a situation in which she either acknowledges her vulnerability as a human being or is destroyed by it.

Finally, I note among the reviews that 'Alphanants' is:

    Great golden-age SF.
    Too old fashioned.
    Great adult fair.
    Clearly for the under 13 crowd.
    Etc, etc.
It is nice to know reviewers are as varied as the rest of us.

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