Fiction Reviews


Frontier

(2022) Grace Curtis, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99, hrdbk, 248pp, ISBN 978-1-399-71806-6

 

It is many hundreds of years into the future and humanity has spread across the galaxy. Centuries ago the Earth became globally warmed and resource depleted so humanity largely left. Indeed, humanity's galactic Empire was centred far away from Earth at the Galactic core with all that remained on Earth were a scattered disgruntled few many of whom had a religious faith revering the Mother Earth; a few that were never visited by anyone from the Empire.

Then, one day a capsule crashes to Earth much to the joy of two locals and their car driver, for this will make them extremely wealthy. Greed takes its toll and they kill one another and so do not see a stranger, a young woman armed with a peculiar gun, leave the capsule. She is on a mission to locate another woman, her lover, who apparently is also on Earth…

Frontier reads a bit like a western complete with hot deserts, scattered settlements, outlaws and sheriffs. Our stranger could well be a female Clint Eastwood 'man with no name'. The novel's set up was captivating, and given I tremendously enjoyed the last post-apocalyptic SF western I read, Sea of Rust (2017), I looked forward to whatever it was that Frontier had to offer.

Boy, was I bitterly disappointed!

Frontier is incredibly poorly plotted, its characters seemingly have thoughtless motivation and the science content – remember, this is a science fiction book – appears to have been dreamt up by someone who must have had a penchant for avoiding their school science classes. (I thought SF had largely eschewed poor science out of the genre over half a century ago, as we are today living in a technology-dominated world based on science with an increasingly science and techno savvy youth.) All of which makes this book's somewhat quirky writing style the least of its problems. How this book ever got through editorial I will never know.

First off, character motivation. If you are in a world with limited resources and little transportation, would you really crash your valuable vehicle through a shelter, even if it was a flimsy one, just for the hell of it? If you are the parent of a diabetic child, would you simply turn away the person who has spent days bringing your child their medicine? And if you had a special gun that was the envy of everyone, would you seriously consider giving it away for a comparative stranger to get a rare edition of a comic? Time and again I scratched my head wondering why such-and-such a character did what they were doing?

Second, science. A piece of advice. If you are not a scientist and if you did not do particularly well at school science, but really wish to write science fiction, then for goodness' sake get a tame scientist onboard, or at the very least do your research, otherwise you could end up looking a right plonker. To take a howler that appears fairly early in the book, diabetics do not take insulin tablets: they inject it. Why? Because insulin is a reasonably-sized protein (certainly not a tiddler) with 51 amino acids and an atomic mass just shy of 6,000. So what happens when you take an insulin tablet? It enters your stomach where it is promptly broken down by digestive enzymes. You can take insulin tablets until the cows come home, it will not help your diabetes. Insulin is always injected.

And, as for the effects of climate change – something that is now firmly on the national curriculum – in a hyperthermal global rainfall increases, it most certainly does not decrease: in a warmer world there is more ocean evaporation, hence more rain. We have loads of examples of past hyperthermals in the geological record and we always see increased continental run-off during these events…

The least of this book's problems is its writing style. Too often, for my liking, the author will start a chapter or a new section with description of the scene, and then there may be some dialogue, but only after all that do we learn who is there and who is speaking to whom. This made me go back and re-read the past few paragraphs to get it all straight in my head and so disrupted the reading experience.

I did try to figure out why it was that the author wrote this way? It turns out that the author's usual work is writing about computer video games and this may be a computer game thing: you are presented with a scene in which you have to work out what it is and only then something happens with someone. Maybe this is the way the computer game generation thinks? I don't know, but it did not work for me. This also might explain the giving-their-gun-away consideration.? In computer video games you often have to use everything you have in one level to get to the next level.

Anyway, this was a disappointing book not least because its beginning was so promising and I can understand an editor being tempted to accept the book just from the novel's first twenty or so pages. Yes, the novel has some great set pieces but, while these are entertaining in themselves, their sequencing seemed a little disjointed.

So, will this book sell in great numbers? Well, you've probably guessed that I suspect not. It may be, what with magazine writing about computer video games, that the author has something of a social media following and so could shift a few thousand copies. It could be that I am out of touch with the way the younger computer gamers read books. It could be that there is a large, scientifically illiterate readership who loves SF to tap into out there… But, I do rather doubt it.

Evidently, the author has a second book coming out as there is a one-page teaser for this at the novel's end followed the first half-dozen pages. The teaser was certainly engaging and had I read that without having read Frontier I would have been greatly tempted. But then Frontier itself began so well. Alas, as it was I lacked the will to read the next novel's first half-dozen pages.

Well, that was unpleasant. I do so hate giving bad reviews but hope that this was illustrative, constructive and had a few pointers.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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