Fiction Reviews

The Nemesis List

(2010) R. J. Frith, Tor (UK), £16.99, hrdbk, 325pp, ISBN978-0-230-74891-0


According to the cover blurb, R. J. Frith has written a number of short stories covering many genres and this is his/her first novel. I found it to be a decent bit of enjoyable space opera.

The story is set at a time when jump gate technology has allowed mankind to reach out across the stars. There is but one Government and it controls everything; the power and the wealth is concentrated in the central planets but nonetheless the planets of the outer reaches play a vital part. In order to keep control the Government long ago decided to rigidly control science and technology, figuring that slow progress is much more stable. Out in the further reaches, though, criminal activity and illegal research and technology are much easier as ships jump frequently from one remote place to another in the certain knowledge that the Government cannot patrol everywhere. In particular, the illegal and unknown Charris Confederation is intent on revolution, on overthrowing the stifling Government.

Sixteen years before the main story begins, young Jake is taken from his parents and incarcerated aboard an illegal research ship. There, using chemicals processed from the bodies of a race of illegally captured, sentient aliens, many children are subjected to endless experiments in an attempt to find a way of dramatically improving their learning capabilities. The demands of the experiments are more than their minds and bodies can take and Jake, now known as Jeven (a shortening of J Seventeen - his experimental identifier) is the only survivor of his group. His body is full of alien chemistry, his mind altered by direct contact with the aliens, and his head has been stuffed full of every fact they could cram into it. At this point, the research ship is discovered and boarded by the Government and Jeven is 'saved' - except that life on a Government research ship is hardly salvation as he is still a most unusual child and of great interest to the Government.

Rolling forward, Jeven has escaped and is on the run. His encyclopaedic knowledge can be very helpful though accessing it is none too reliable. He has an acute ability to understand people’s wants and desires and so he can often easily manipulate them, which has got him a long way on his escape. However, such is the ever pervasive, detailed, control of the Government that his travels have to be done well under the radar and all aspects of officialdom and bureaucracy avoided - and this leaves him open to exploitation by the unscrupulous. As we join him, he is in the clutches of Hetta Combes, the not very pleasant captain of a merchant ship. Combes is in negotiations with Frank Pak, captain of another merchant ship, for the 'sale' of Jeven.

Frank Pak proves to be one of nature’s Good Guys. He is an ex-soldier who is trying to earn an honest living, though that is far from easy (and one suspects that circumstances sometimes force him to sail a little on the other side of the law), and his crew is the 'usual' collection of misfits. He has been commissioned by Clifford Greeley of the (Government’s) Dunbar Institution to find and return Jeven, a lucrative contract that has enabled him to significantly upgrade the capabilities of his ship.

Jeven, on the other hand, is not particularly pleasant (though this is hardly his fault). His experiences so far in his short life have been bad and survival has not been easy; he has learnt to trust no-one and to manipulate everyone. His reliance on medication and the constantly changing state of his unusual mind make him unpredictable and difficult.

As the story continues, we learn a little more of the illegal research and that at the time the research ship was boarded, Jeven was the subject of yet another experiment. This means that his mind was especially impressionable and, as he watched the doctors destroying the evidence of their misdoings, i.e. killing the aliens and all the remaining children, it left him with an overwhelming urge to avenge their deaths. Following his eventual escape from the Institution, Jeven searches out the offenders (hence the title of the book) and has so far killed two of them. However, these activities are not covered in the story; they are merely background detail and thus the title is misleading.

We find that, not too long ago, Jeven and Pak had saved each other’s lives, which has created complications for both of them. We also learn that the Government has its factions and is not above acting surreptitiously and through agents such as Pak, nor are they necessarily honest in their dealings. We learn that a rebellion is on its way and that it too has its factions, and as there are revolutionaries within the Government and the military, it becomes difficult to know who is on what side.

Having secured his release from Combes, Pak is intent on taking Jeven back to Greeley but what should have been a routine stop at Delta Station goes sour when Christian MacKay Calder, a member of the very powerful Calder family, intervenes and takes custody of him. The Calders are behind the Charris Confederation and the upcoming revolution but Christian’s motives in wanting Jeven are purely personal. As the Confederation actually want him for their own purposes, their man Patrick Nash kidnaps Jeven from Christian and forces Frank Pak to fly them out. And so the chase and the action continue…

The story is not about Jeven’s list, neither is it about the Government nor the rebellion, though both sides, or aspects of both sides, think that Jeven is important to them. The story is about Jeven and his life, the childhood experiments he suffered and their impact on him. Throughout the story he remains on the run. By its end the rebellion is starting and he is now on the run from everyone, not just the Government, though with a slightly better idea of who is who.

This is an action story and it avoids going into any depth about anything much, the characterisations are a bit thin, though it was nice, for once, to have a 'hero' who does not use his powers to miraculously save the universe in time of great need but who is simply fighting his own battles, simply trying to survive. Whether this is the first part of his story and it continues in further volumes I know not.

I found the whole story enjoyable to read; a satisfying bit of space opera but certainly not deep.

Peter Tyers

See also David's take on The Nemesis List and Jonathan's review of The Nemesis List.

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