(2020) Robert Mitchell Evans, Flame Tree Press, £9.95 / US$14.95, pbk, 233pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58398-6
Oh my, what to make of this one? A hard to categorise novel, mixing crime fiction written in a cod noir style with some SF tropes and devices – and set in the future.
The Science Fiction first: a few generations after Arkships carried colonists away from a brown dwarf carving its way through our solar system, a morally repressive culture thinks its world – Nocturnia – is the only surviving colony world. But there are representatives of another world there – the Tans – who want to ‘guide’ Nocturnia into ‘true enlightenment’. There used to be AIs but they self-destructed once the colony was up and running, but the Tans have their own – Vulcan’s Forge – with the power to replicate, data manipulate and, it seems, get the Tans back home, far away from the ‘backward world’ they are trapped on.
That’s basically it for the sci-fi, which is a bit of a bemusing tack-on to the pulp crime drama, complete with femme fatale and crushing one-liners. The story’s set in a super-moral mid 20th Century small town America pastiche where our protagonist, Jason, works as a film archivist and cinema owner. He is also on the world’s decision making council, improbably, but that turns out not to be of any significance other than to undermine his credibility as a character. Jason is only allowed to show family friendly films, and has a boss, Jones, who thinks he is a social deviant intent on forcing moral degradation into the community. He has a beautiful fiancée, Seiko, who we learn little about save that she’s long suffering and loves him.
The hard and fast moral rule is chastity until marriage, though Seiko is more keen on enforcing that stricture than Jason. Which may be why he doesn’t put up much resistance when the beautiful Pamela turns up at his cinema, all sultry pouts, husky voice and alluring smile. Before long they are getting way more intimate than is culturally appropriate on Nocturnia. There is a page of pretty graphic seχ at this point – so this book is definitely not YA – but it’s all pretty passionless. Nevertheless, Seiko gets abruptly sidelined (never dumped, though if we were to feel any sympathy at all for Jason, it would have been a kindness) and Jason falls for the not inconsiderable charms of his seducer.
But Jason’s happiness does not last. Pamela, it seems, belongs to another, the evil crime lord Eddie Nguyen, but she has a plan. Eddie, it seems, has stolen Vulcan’s Forge from the Tans, leaving them stranded, and now Pamela has stolen it from him. He is a bad, bad man and the only way they can be together, she tells Jason breathlessly, is to kill him.
Then everything kicks off. And once the crime plot’s sorted out (messily, in all respects) the novel switches back to the science fiction and some not quite explained endings, presumably setting up a sequel.
Vulcan’s Forge has its moments and is easy to read, but the characters are thin and the plot (at least the crime part of it) is predictable. And the lead character is less the bemused innocent I think the author’s aiming for and more the morally compromised ‘feral’ the super-smug Tans keep calling him. He is selfish and unpleasant, constantly putting his friends in danger and casting his poor girlfriend aside as soon as a trade-up becomes available. All of which means this book doesn’t work for me I’m afraid.
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