(2018) Rob Boffard, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 379pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51043-9
This highly entertaining often tense roller-coaster ride closely follows the formula of a typical 1970’s disaster movie, that just happens to be set in space.
There is the stewardess on her first day at work, having to keep passengers calm and even fly the spaceship herself. There is the recovering alcoholic faced with a shot at redemption, the child-genius, and the kid who won’t stop pointing a camcorder at everyone.
There is also the married couple trying not to let the children know they are considering a divorce, and the old lady who had an adventurous past and seeks an opportunity to take another space-walk.
The pilot is a Russian former-fighter ace which comes in handy for making tactical and evasive manoeuvres when the enemy gun-ship comes in pursuit. There is a constant screaming sense of ‘oh no, now what can they do?’
The passengers are tourists on a cheap excursion to visit the Sigma Station, a luxury hotel in the Horsehead Nebula. They can’t afford to stay there; just look round it. Except, it isn’t there any more. They arrived just in time to see it destroyed by a giant mysterious battle-cruiser that might be from Earth or of alien technology.
The attackers also destroy the Babylon-5-style wormhole jump-gate the little shuttle needs for going home. They are now marooned in deep space, with barely any food or fuel, useless escape pods, a frozen water supply, an engine fire, panic-stricken passengers, and the sinister formidable kill-ship still in relentless in pursuit.
Hannah just about gets the dysfunctional passengers to bond and work together to solve some of their problems when the old lady unwittingly capturing a member of the kill-ship crew alive changes everything. The passengers are divided between those who want to question him, and those who want to torture and kill him for what he did. Now the little shuttle erupts in internal civil war too.
Virtually all of the seventy-two chapters end with a fresh cliff-hanger as a bad situation gets worse with Boffard cranking up the tension in the extreme. You seriously end up wondering how anyone could survive half of this.
The identity and motives of the attack ship crew are kept secret well into the book, and then nicely revealed. Some of the passengers have great quirky personality traits too. The pilot keeps her vodka stash to herself when everyone divides up what food and drink thy have for rations. One passenger has a bionic arm that he laments over for it lacking extra strength when so many he reads about let the bearer tear through steel and fight with the strength of ten men.
Sometimes, what they need to do to get out of the latest trap or pitfall is fairly obvious to anyone already versed in the SF genre. If someone is locked in a toilet cubicle with others coming to kill him, the previously un-noticed ventilation shaft escape route seems a probable, credible escape option, and sure enough….
Several characters avoid being stereotypes of the genre through clever writing and unexpected twists. When it comes to attempting to take control of the ship from the liberal-minded passengers, two of the rebels seem rather too efficient at such a mission, for reasons later given.
In true disaster movie style, and tradition this is a story to keep you guessing as to who will survive and who won’t, and guessing as to the underlying motivation for the spectacular destructive attack taking place at all.The closing chapters seem to be a check-list tying off of loose ends, but this novel is well-written hokum, that would make a terrific film.
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