(2013) Gavin Smith, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 503pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09475-8
Eldon Sloper agrees to take his ship on a risky salvage mission into Red Space. In Red Space the rules are different and it is best to keep close to the Church beacons. Fortunately they soon find something near the coordinates to which they were sent. It is a craft and there are life signs…
Meanwhile in ancient Britain a tribe is slaughtered by raiders in black ships. The survivor swears that she will get her revenge…
And in present-day England Beth is searching for her sister but a tooled up soldier cum secret agent is also on the trail and, equipped with futuristic weapons, is not letting anything stand in his way.
The story starts with the future space opera strand and we soon learn that we are in a post-human world with uplifted (terrestrial) species along with post-human humans, cloning and person back-ups (cf. Greg Egan) etc.
Having said that, the novel's other two strands (ancient Britain and present-day England) carry equal weight. The common denominator between these threads are the violent, testosterone-driven, action scenes at which Gavin Smith excels so well. If you are anything like me you'll soon have a favourite strand and be tempted to follow it: mine was the present-day England strand in the hope I would find out more of what was going on. And here's the thing. While Smith is so good at his fight scenes, somewhere along the line he forgot how to drive this story's plot. Yes, it has a widescreen backdrop spanning space and time, and indeed higher dimensions with Red Space. Yes, it has pump action battles. Yes, it has a full bag of SF tropes: nanotechnology, cloning, species uplift, interstellar travel, time-spanning story, cyborgs, you name it the chances are it's in there somewhere. But all this simply smothers the story and the novel comes across as a bit of a pot boiler.
On the face of it, The Age of Scorpio seems like a hard SF space opera, but alas that's not what you get. The hard SF is actually very superficial. To take one, but illustrative example from the first few pages: "reconfigure the sensors to check every conceivable spectrum capable of carrying a transmission and then check the rest." And then a few lines on, "the signal, which was coming in from some exotic part of the EM spectrum". Sorry Gavin, hard SF enthusiasts can spot wishy-washy technobable a mile off; we have all seen (passing fun as it might be) Star Trek. (And if you don't know how scientifically limp those statements are then you are not a truly hard SF reader.) Of course, it could well be that many may well enjoy The Age of Scorpio's three strands on a ancient fantasy warrior plus present-day James Bond and a Star Trek-with-a-gritty-violence-edge level, and as said, Gavin does excel at his battle scenes which permeate all three strands. However for my money The Age of Scorpio was not as good as his debut novel Veteran. Veteran did have a story with a logical plot, and a character with which you could at least empathise. It did use SF tropes but in a way that appeared to have a little more thought compared to what we have here with The Age of Scorpio. Indeed, I had hope that Gavin Smith would improve his game after his slightly above-average debut. Alas, to my mind he is going in the wrong direction and needs to be told.
Now, all this could be me. I am getting on a bit and have read probably too much SF in my time. Maybe I am not as flexible as a suppler, younger reader might be. Indeed, I did feel reading this that I might have been playing some computer game with different levels reflecting the novel's different strands: short bouts of violent conflict and then on to the next scenario. Now, if there's a reasonably-sized market for this type of thing then fair enough. Maybe someone younger, or even you, might get more out of The Age of Scorpio than I. Certainly if you are into military SF and testosterone sci-fi you could well find this a real treat, and there is nothing at all wrong with that.
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