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Simplistic and lowbrow, but fun!
on 23 March 2014
This is not a straightforward review for me to write, as there are quite a few problems with the book in my opinion, and yet I enjoyed it and read it in two days (not usual nowadays due to lack of time!) so it has to deserve four stars, with caveats. In fact, this has turned into more of a critique than a review, so I'd advise that if you think you'll enjoy the story from the synopsis, are in the mood for action over subtle detail and characterisation, and don't mind that there are no strong female characters, then just buy the book now, and then come back and read my critique to see if you agree :-).
My criticisms first then, and please note again that there are spoilers below:
The whole story seems to me to be a wish-fulfilment piece by an American who is fed up with washy-washy foreign policy (I'm aware that the author is not American). I can well imagine a lot of US readers thinking "Hell yeah!" As they read how the ex-military GI Joe brothers stick it to the Man, take out Islamic terrorists, overthrow regimes in the Middle East and plenty more in the same vein. Needless to say, the US-centric focus continues throughout the book, with other nations very much cast into almost incidental roles. Then again, this isn't exactly unusual in this day and age, just look at any typical Hollywood blockbuster.
Then there is the pacing, which is far too swift to take the story particularly seriously. The initial alien abduction is dealt with in a few pages. You can almost feel the author's impatience to get to the main entertainment of playing with all the alien technology.
These futuristic toys are all standard tropes, lifted from any number of other sci-fi tales, and give our protagonists near-unlimited power, which is of course the point of the story. The trouble is, the sheer number of gadgets on offer, combined with the fast pacing, means there is little possibility to explore the ramifications of each one. For example, early on they are given a medi-lab which will also augment human bodies to pretty much any level. There is a brief passage discussing the ethics of whether to use it to make themselves superhumans with extended lifespans, but then it is never discussed again.
Other tech is treated in slightly more detail, but implausibly so. For example, the nano-drones can target, monitor and kill any number of individuals on the planet and are completely untraceable, but our heroes have seemingly no reservations in revealing this capability to the American government. In reality, this would make it completely untenable to form an alliance with them. There are many more such examples, but suffice to say, you need to take plot holes with a pinch of salt in order to fully enjoy this book.
The pacing problem continues with the timescale involved in utilising the tech on offer. Within a month they have an operational moon base with thousands of inhabitants. Shortly after this Mars is colonised and within four years they have their millionth citizen on the moon, with only token lip-service given to all the myriad problems such a large population would encounter. I fully get the point - in the real world NASA and the rest of humanity have dragged their heels, and it is frustrating to us sci-fi fans - but such an accelerated timescale does erode plausibility.
Other logical ramifications of the ambitious plot are completely ignored. For example, what would happen to religion on Earth when knowledge of 10,000 other species becomes public knowledge?
If you've read my other book reviews on Amazon, you'll see I put great store on characterisation in fiction. Sadly, this is another of the problems this book suffers from. The characters aren't unlikeable by any stretch, but they are also not very interesting. You could summarise any of them in two short sentences and too many of them only seem to exist to further plot points or provide didactic words of caution to Steve (which are always basically "with great power comes great responsibility")
The female characters are even weaker, in fact that is being kind. There is actually only one woman in the entire cast that merits more than a few pages, the rest are mere footnotes.
The character with the most potential is actually the oppressed, geeky alien crab raised in a culture that despises his curiosity. However, this poor little sod is hardly a major character, which is a shame.
Now, on to the good points.
The main selling point of this book are the fun aspects of having an awesome array of future tech to do with as you will. Indeed, perhaps some of my prior criticisms are unfair. It would certainly be a very different book had the author decided to make it more of a think piece and analyse such a situation in greater detail.
Throw in an imminent alien invasion and you have a great recipe for a gripping page turner. I wouldn't have bothered writing such a long critique if I hadn't enjoyed the story.
There are also plenty of snack-sized sci-fi elements that you never get bored. For example, The Horde are a novel race of scavengers and I liked the thought of the humans trying to better them rather than just destroying them.
I do hope the author writes a sequel, but if he does, it is going to be tricky for him to deal with such an ambitious galactic fleshpot of 10,000 civilisations. Comparisons are inevitably going to be made with The Culture, whereas the style so far is less sophisticated, harking back to classic Space Opera.
One point about Kindle formatting. I absolutely hate badly formatted books, so noted the negative comments from some of the reviews on here with dread. However, I'm guessing a new version has been issued, as I didn't have any problems. There are a few typos, but only a few, and I cut self-published authors some slack for that.
I would have happily paid the asking price for this book, but noticed it was in the Amazon Prime lending library so borrowed it instead. I'll be checking out more books by the author as a result.