Friday, May 16, 2008

The Great Planet Robbery by Craig DiLouie - review

This is a fun-filled, hard to put down novel which is both a riff and an homage to classic pulp adventure sf.

The synopsis below, while quite accurate in fact is very misleading in spirit:

"Lawrence Dobbs and Timothy Muldoon, Colonial Marines and thorough rascals, are the last of a dying breed of adventurers in a Federation that has tamed dozens of wild planets and is increasingly becoming civilized. When an old astronaut offers to sell them a map that will take them to a legendary planet promising rivers of gold, Dobbs and Muldoon recruit a crew of misfits for one last great adventure. They soon realize they haven't just discovered gold, but the very secret of alchemy. To keep it, they just have to fight millions of hostile natives, a team of elite bounty hunters, a combat-assassin android named Bova and the emperor of a dead civilization."

The main two characters Dobbs and Muldoon are that old adventure tale tropes, the smart cynical enabler - Dobbs, the big hearted, dimmer, but brawnier and braver - Muldoon.

On the wrong side of an investigation - using close to light speed time dilation to age some scotch and sell it as expensive 60 year old scotch - Dobbs and Muldoon, sergeants in the Federation Marine corps and already on the black list of some long dead official and sent for protection duties to a dead end desert planet which is close to a wormhole, but useless otherwise, are now the target of an investigator that is due to arrive in 5 months time. This could land them on a prison planet so they decide to skip town so to speak.

There are wormholes but any organic matter sent through has always disappeared, so people travel only sublight using cryogenics, hence spacers tend to have drawn-out lives while generation pass on planets. Still the Federation and its bureaucracy are always there, so if you are on the black-list of someone important, you tend to remain there however much time-dilation you use to go in the future...

Deciding that it's time to get rich once and for all, and using an old spacer's treasure map, they prepare to appropriate an unmanned freighter due for a wormhole transition, deviate it slightly to avoid the wormhole and go and find the treasure planet and rob it. As Dobbs put it: from the Federation manual of how to deal with alien societies - there is Plan A trade, Plan B diplomacy and if all else fails Plan C military conquest.

So Dobbs and Muldoon put together a crew of spacer misfits and off they are.

There are all the characters you expect - the big badass mercenary, the humorless officials objecting to the innocuous scams of our heroes, the lovable, naive sextech - we are in a postmodern era after all - that our big hearted hero falls for, the brave, loyal and ultimately doomed foot soldiers, the bad, revenge oriented alien, the well meaning, cynical but drunk commander, the quirky pilot and navigator, the big-gun guy and his nasty robot shooter, the smart but socially clueless engineer, the untrustworthy hacker. But everything is turned on its head and almost nothing happens as it "should".

There are so many hilarious moments that punctuate the dry, ironical, matter of fact narration, that is hard to stop laughing quite often.

The above sounds like 50's pulp reinvented for our times - as people write once in a while, though sf moved beyond that a long time ago. However The Great Planet Robbery is actually a very self-ironic, post modernistic tale told through all the pulp cliches you want. This is what I would call "picaresque sf" more than anything else, though with full modern sensibilities beneath the pulp-like content. I am not quite sure why I enjoyed it so much - probably the sum of all parts rather than anything in particular, but it is a whimsical tale that you may love or hate on sight.

The ending is superb, quite funny and in the spirit of the book. If you want a fun romp that also challenges the adventure-sf tropes this is the book for you.

As an aside - I hesitated ordering it since it sounded too pulpy for my taste, but the cover sold the book for me. So check one for people who argue that cover art is important. The cover does not scream pulp, but hints at something subtler...

No comments: