on 1 October 2012
The Devil's Nebula is the first book in the new 'Weird Space' shared world series from Abaddon Books, and written by one of my favourite authors, Eric Brown. I've not read many shared world books before as I've never really seen the attraction of doing so - I much prefer to read a series from one author. As this is the first book in the Weird Space setting I was pleased to be able to jump on at the start, see what Brown would set up, and just how I would perceive it knowing it was to be the first of many in this setting and to be continued by different authors. But anyway, what did I think of The Devil's Nebula? Exactly what I expected - I enjoyed it.
There are two main threads in The Devil's Nebula. The first follows Ed, Lania, and Jed, the crew of the borderline illegal trading ship The Paradoxical Poet, as they attempt to acquire a statue from a once-human world now under the control of the Vetch. With the penalty for being found here certain death, the crew know that it's a risky mission, and that's before the Captain, Ed, reveals the other reason they are there. But all does not go smoothly, and after a tight confrontation with the Vetch they escape only to be caught by the human authorities. Fearing the worst, it comes as a surprise that they are offered a mission to what is believed to be a far-flung colony world settled in secret many years ago. With their choices limited there is really only one option, and it's this exploratory mission that makes up the bulk of the story.
The other plot thread focuses on Maatja, a young girl living on the World, a planet where the small human population lives under the control of the Weird, an alien species that appears to look after them. But Maatja has suspicions, and as events unfold she realises that the Weird aren't the good-natured aliens they show themselves to be. And when Ed, his crew, and the officials arrive on the World questions finally start being answered.
There were two main things I wanted from The Devil's Nebula before I started reading it. The first is obvious: a good story. With Eric Brown at the helm I knew that was pretty much a sure thing, and he didn't disappoint. The Devil's Nebula is firmly set in an SF setting, but it isn't hard SF, nor really space opera. The small crew of the Paradoxical Poet added a nice set of characters, while Maatja allowed the World to be seen in a different view to the one most of its inhabitants have. Brown manages to convey the sense of wrongness on the World, but it does feel one-sided. It's not a bad thing, though a point of view here and there from the other side might have helped to balance it out a little. The Weird match there name well, and while they are explored throughout the story (more towards the concluding chapters), further details could have given a deeper complexity to them.
One of the few aspects I felt was thoroughly under-developed was the relationship between humanity and the Vetch. After the early stages of the novel they seem to be pushed to one side, the threat they pose to humans not really looked at in detail, and after some of the early scenes and exposition about them that raises many questions, I felt a little short-changed regarding them.
Of course, all this relates to my second requirement from The Devil's Nebula: how well does it work as a shared setting? The answer is quite simple: very well. These little things that weren't developed thoroughly here can be looked at in greater detail in future novels. Having Brown firming up all details would have been a bad idea for the future writers of this series, so it's a sacrifice that I'm prepared to allow it for the sake of future stories. And the ending certainly opens up many possibilities there.
Overall I'd say The Devil's Nebula is a spot-on first novel in a shared setting. It delivers a good story, introduces the premise of the setting and the threats and dangers posed within it, but also works well as a stand-alone. I'll be very much looking forward to the next Weird Space novel, especially one written by another author just to see where they can take it, and with Eric Brown already signed up for another book in this setting (Satan's Reach), I know that it'll be a series worth following.
on 1 August 2012
The blend of science-fiction and horror/the unknown/the weird is one of my favourite subgenres in fiction books. Even in cinema, give me a movie like Ridley Scott's Alien or John Carpenter's The Thing and I would be glued to the screen. That's why I had been looking forward to Eric Brown's The Devil's Nebula. Not only because I love Eric Brown's work in general but also because The Devil's Nebula is the first book of a new series called Weird Space. This whole package offered a great promise.
The Devil's Nebula's setting is not revolutionary. You're definitely not going to need an advanced physics degree to grasp the concepts that Brown put in place. Two main parallel story threads tell us about The Paradoxical Poet's crew's adventures and the life on a distant planet focussed on a young girl called Maatja. I was glad that the author included various alien races in his book. There are also many points that are left underdeveloped. I'm hoping that those are extension points of Weird Space's shared world.
The main characters are the three-man crew of The Paradoxical Poet (with an emphasis on Captain Ed Carew and Pilot Lania Takiomar) and a young girl called Maatja. And not surprisingly, two main parallel story threads follow the trio and Maatja separately. To tell you the truth I was not fully satisfied with the character development. Definitely not to the extend to dislike the book but I expected that Brown would (and I know he could) develop some parts better.
Maybe my previous complaint is also related to the size of the book. The Devil's Nebula is a short book. I would have enjoyed more if the book were thicker. The reader is left with the impression that the setting allowed much more, which is a good thing for the series. However I admit that a book slightly less than 300 pages is also a good fit for someone looking for a quick and captivating read.
One of the special points of the story is the connection between the pilot and her spaceship. The author makes allusions to (or at least I was reminded of) one of his earlier books called Engineman. I remember that, when I was reading Engineman, I was impressed with the connection Brown imagined between a human being and an intelligent ship. The connection was so overwhelming that it was the most important thing in a pilot's life. In The Devil's Nebula, a pilot's experience is not at the level of reaching Nirvana however I still loved the idea of a pilot's conscience becoming part of the ship. Furthermore I find it much more realistic than a pilot holding a joystick.
Another interesting point of this series is that Weird Space is a shared world created by Eric Brown. I am really curious to see who will be contributing to the series and where they will take us. We already know about the second instalment of the series. It is written by Eric Brown as well and it is called Satan's Reach. It is due for release in the summer of 2013. And it sounds like we are going to know more about the Vetch Empire. Here's what the author said about his upcoming book:
"I'm excited about doing the second book in the Weird Space series - a seat-of-the-pants adventure entitled Satan's Reach about a telepath on the run from the Expansion authorities and the bounty hunter who will stop at nothing to get him - and what they find on a far-flung planet in the badlands of Satan's Reach. It's space opera with the emphasis on starships, aliens, exotic worlds - and the perennial threat from the Weird."
And here's some blurb:
Den Harper is a telepath on the run from the Expansion authorities, and Sharl Janaker the bounty hunter chasing him across badlands of Satan's Reach.
On a far-flung planet in the reach they must set aside their mutual enmity and face a foe that threatens not only the colonists of the Reach, but the entirety of the Expansion beyond.
On the one hand, I'm a little disappointed that Ed and Lania won't have a place (at least not a central one) in Satan's Reach. On the other hand, it is important for the future of the series to create a setting that goes beyond the stories of a few people.
To tell you the truth, I had high expectations about Eric Brown's new book The Devil's Nebula, the first book of the Weird Space series. And starting a book with high expectations is something that I've been trying to avoid. But fortunately The Devil's Nebula lived up to my expectations. I really liked its story and the way it is delivered. I'm looking forward to Satan's Reach.
on 15 June 2012
Eric Brown has authored more than a dozen novels to-date, of which I've read three; each novel exuding humanism, complicated characters dealing with emotion, turmoil, and death. In the genre of science fiction, no one comes close to writing characters as details as Brown. The only comparison I can think of outside the genre would be John Updike, who can effortlessly infuse humanism within mere pages. Brown's collection in The Fall of Tartarus is his answer to Updike's The Afterlife in this regard. Besides these humanistic feats of SF literature, Brown has also produced some very traditional science fiction fare: Helix and Necropath neither of which have I read. I was unsure whether The Devil's Nebula would be of Brown's humanistic or hard science fiction, but having been impress with everything he's written so far, I pre-ordered The Devil's Nebula with much anticipation.
Rear cover synopsis:
"Ed Carew and his small ragtag crew are smugglers and ne'er-do-wells, thumbing their noses at the Expansion, the vast human hegemony extending across thousands of worlds... until the day they are caught, and offered a choice between working for the Expansion and an ignominious death. They must trespass across the domain of humanity's neighbors, the Vetch--the inscrutable alien race with whom humanity has warred, at terrible cost of life, and only recently arrived at an uneasy peace--and into uncharted space beyond, among the strange worlds of the Devil's Nebula, looking for long-lost settlers.
A new evil threatens not only the Expansion itself, but the Vetch as well. In the long run, the survival of both races may depend on their ability to lay aside their differences and co-operate."
Insubordinate to the Expansion, Captain Edward Carew of the ship Paradoxical Poet and his crew of two, Lania Takiomar and Jedley Neffard, approach the abandoned Vetch planet of Hesperides to retrieve an alien artifact still housed in a city museum. While approaching the museum, they see a Vetch ship being loaded with burnt wreckage from the museum vault. After the ship leaves, they are tracked by one remaining Vetch scout who doesn't act as brutal as they are ugly:
"[...] eight feet tall, its legs disproportionately long, and its body compact. But it was its head that marked it as grotesquely alien. Hairless and mottled in pink, it had the wattled appearance of something haemorrhoidal: a more charitable comparison [...] was to an albino hound-dog after a bloody collision with a brick wall." (26)
The alien Vetch spares their lives and hint at their interest in the derelict spacecraft on the planet, something which the three-man crew are now interested in. Finding nothing but the perished remains on an older Vetch scout craft, the three return to space but are apprehended by the Expansion authorities. Rather than face death, the trio are given the opportunity to perform a service for the Expansion that they hate so much: pilot and crew a prototype craft through Vetch space to a distress beacon on planet colonized scores of years ago by a human cult. Beyond the border of the Vetch sphere of influence, the Devil's Nebula is uncharted territory.
The Expansion's goal of spreading "homogeneity across the human diaspora" (125) and some factions, like the Kurishen cult, have fled beyond Vetch space so that "the inexorable expansion of the human race [cannot] catch up with them, to infect their ideals with notions they abhorred." (99) The cult, once based on the planet of Vercors, established their cult around the derelict alien starships which crash landed with no one aboard and without autopilot. One of seven craft to have crash landed in the sphere of the Expansion, the mystery of the origin and function of the craft have remained for one hundred years.
The cult has been living on the planet they call World for over seventy years now. Originally composed of 5,000 colonists, their cult dedicated population now total a mere 1,000 plus scores of heretics living in the forest canopies beyond the village. The villagers live a simple life as patrons to the Weird, a holometabolic or hemimetabolic collective-mind race which enslave the cult for their purposes of gathering intelligence. The alien's stages of Harvester, Sleer, Shuffler, and Flyer all have their function to the Weird hive-mind, but the cult are drugged by the offerings of the Harvester so the don't see the deception perpetrated by the Weird.
When the Expansion ship, captained by Ed and piloted by Lania, land on World, they feel disturbed by the odd happenings in the camp but are unable to pin their unsettled feelings on any one circumstance. While the ship's crew greet the cult's camp, one village girl (Maatja) smart enough not to ingest the drug has escaped to track down her father, who has floated down river to become employed by the Weird, a job which is unclear to everyone. The wavefront of odd happenings will find Ed and Lania deep in the jungles of World on a quest to discover the mysteries of the Weird, save the girl Maatja, and make it off the planet safely.
Firstly, I hate an instinct that told me this would be a series. No novel would use a colon punctuation mark in its title if it weren't part of a greater series; "Weird Space" being this series and The Devil's Nebula being the first book in the series. There aren't many series that interest me nowadays so this new series of Brown's was a welcome addition. However, the entire book doesn't feel written with Brown's knack for humanistic characterization or his pizazz for setting up an epic background.
Brown has rehashed an idea from Engineman in regards to experiencing hyperspace as a pilot: "...philosophers say that the void is the reality towards which we are all destined [...] Some pilots claim they attain oneness with the void, an abolition of the self." (136) Compares this to the pilot religion of Engineman, the Disciples, where they skim the void and glimpse the afterlife, taste the nirvava. This aspect may not be new to any Eric Brown enthusiast, but his description of the void will not be new to any science fiction reader, a description which resonates with Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series and Jack McDevitt's Academy series:
"They made the transition from real space to the realm that underpinned reality, the grey non-space through which ships could travel vast distances, reaching far stars without approaching the speed of light. Through the viewscreen, the sweep of stars that was the Vetch territory disappeared, to be replaced by the swirling pewter monochrome of the void." (121-122)
As a matter of opinion, there's nothing in The Devil's Nebula that really reaches out, grabs the reader by the cojones, and screams originality: Expansion of human space through colonies, a battle with ugly neighboring aliens, a search for a lost colony, and the discovery of another malevolent species. Michael Cobley's recent (2009-2011) Humanity's Fire series (beginning with Seeds of Earth goes through the same motions: a lost colony, an ambassador sent to mediate, and the discovery of forces with ill-intent. Actually, they both have gates which open up to different dimensions. No points for originality here.
But the flow is much smoother than Cobley's three-book series, but not nearly as epic... yet. The two characters of Ed and Lania are set up to become something more engrossing, with a solid characterization being done with the unveiling of respective back stories for the two. There more on the horizon to exploit, like the Vetch. The reader only catches a glimpse of the aliens in the first 10% (35 pages) of the novel. I can see the Vetch playing a much greater role in the future, but in The Devil's Nebula, the stage has been set for them.
Among the seemingly unoriginality of the entire book, Brown does finally do himself justice with juicy morsels of intelligent writing and intriguing ideas: "How can we judge aliens by our own standards? Our own concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, are arbitrary when applied to alien races. We should not judge." (15) With this tidbits of reflection are colorful passages of literate prose often found in other Brown novels, minus the deep characterization and epic setting.
It's a good start to a series which could easily blossom into something grander, but I said the same thing about Michael Cobley's Humanity's Fire series and that didn't end so well. Irregardless, I'm a big fan of Eric Brown and I plan to tuck into the sequel whenever it's released.
(Side note: If you've read Helix, you might be glad to know the author plans a sequel called Helix Wars in September 2012! I'll have to delve into Helix before September comes around!)