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According to some authors such as Arthur C Clarke, the purpose of science fiction is simply to explore the possible consequences, benign or malign, of scientific principles, social trends or the ramifications of new technology.
Myself however, while such writers as Clarke or Asimov can be an entertaining intellectual puzzle, I prefer my worlds a little less clear cut, my aliens a bit more alien, and my future science to be a little less precise than the advanced state of magic it often appears. Indeed, I would agree with Ursula Le Guin that all the rules of proper writing, realistic characters and not resolving your plots with quite literally a deus ex machina apply just as much to science fiction as to any other branch of imaginative literature. This should explain both why I can't stand the recent direction Doctor Who who has taken, and more importantly for this review why I was so surprised at Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty, a book I picked up on a whim about ten years ago, then found myself almost unable to put down, finishing it in less than two days, and a book which has lost none of its charm upon rereading.
The world in which the book is set will on some levels be a familiar one to fans of SF. Set in a future (possibly an alternative one), in which an alien race have given humanity faster than light ship engines, but restricted all humans to the confines of the solar system, the book employs many familiar SF concepts. A fully colonized solar system with many space stations, asteroids and orbital habitats each with their own culture, a number of visiting alien races, ships with their own AI(necessary to control the unknowable ftl engines), a terraformed planet Mars and even the idea of quasi scientific religions and strange sets of beliefs.
Even the principle protagonist of the story, Tabitha Jute, an over-worked captain of a small hauler ship who gets drawn into a suspicious and possibly criminal enterprise in order to make ends meet, is not an unfamiliar one.
What is unique however, and what distinguishes Greenland from similar space operas is his writing style. Greenland oscillates between three very distinct styles of writing. The first two are fairly obvious since while chapters in the present are told in usual third person, occasionally he gives us chapters which take the form of a dialogue between Tabitha Jute and her ship's AI, detailing episodes from Tabitha's life and how she got where she is. What really distinguishes Take Back Plenty however is the third style, since the chapters told in third person zigzag between a sardonic, almost poetic description of the environment and its history, and a gritty, abrupt depiction of the action involving Tabitha. The poetic style here is unsettling, but at the same time as atmospheric as it is disturbing, indeed the 4th part, which begins with a darkly poetic description of the planet Venus, I regard as one of the best depictions of that sort of unnerving alien horror mixed with wonder so common to good SF I've ever read:
"Venus was never a serious candidate for colonization, even in the rush years when much madder schemes were proposed, taming those burning continents and sullen seas is a task all but the profligate and obsessed soon relinquish. The whole world has been abandoned to admirers of the bizarre and extreme for whom Vulcan tours still provide their notorious monthly excursions, even these do not attempt to descend to the surface of this perverse and deadly world where the sun runs slow and backwards."
Taken from the beginning of part 4, Captives of the Goddess of Love, chapter 42
To contrast with the poetry however, the descriptions of the normal action and of Tabitha's life are so gritty they are positively grimy! This isn't to say the book is overly depressing, indeed much of Greenland's writing contains a kind of ironic humour, however there is a stark realism about much of his descriptions. When for example he details that Tabitha's shoulder bag is not a marvellous collection of space tools, but contains old boxes of sweets, cans of beer, printouts, unwashed underwear and a broken paperback book. This gives us the strong impression that under the poetry and strange future history this is a very real world where people live out their lives full of just the same sort of incomplete, untidy concerns as the world we live in.
His aliens are depicted with a similarly uncompromising reality. This is not a world of profoundly evil tentacle waving monsters, neither is it a utopia where everyone has their own strangely shaped cute alien buddy living next door. It is a world where aliens react, think, even speak differently to humans and are more than a little incomprehensible because of it, indeed Tabitha's often frustrated or scared reactions to the alien she meets are very human.
Of course any book that rattles between styles so rapidly would be jarring, accept that there is a unified aspect to Greenland's writing, something adroit and dark and more than a little strange, even when he is at his most dirty and realistic or colourful and poetic. What makes this style even more unique is that the plot directly explains the reason for these stylistic changes and brings together all the action, indeed it is not until a good ways through the book that you actually realize the reason or occasion of the narrative, and not until the end that it is fully explained. This mixing of the way the book is told with elements of the characters who tell it is truly extraordinary. It is also very different to some of the modern writing conventions where it is simply the dialogue and events of the plot that bear the reader's interest, and the narrative seems more an afterthought.
The one major short fall of Take Back Plenty however, is in its plot and characters. Things start out well, Tabitha, down on her luck and looking at a major fine quite literally runs into a commission to transport the engaging Marco Metz and his strangely eclectic cabaret act to the space station Plenty, and then on to Titan aboard her ship, The Alice Liddle. Of course, there is far more to this request than it initially seems, and only after a great deal of misdirection, lies, and unfortunate incidents does the true nature of the mission get revealed. Though the principle cast of characters is extremely small, all are unique and have their own history and motivations, which get explored throughout the book, as do their relationships to the somewhat irascible Tabitha.
The problem is that half way through the book, bad things start happening to the principle cast, and continue to happen with worrying regularity. Greenland's realistic and sardonic style makes these events truly heart-wrenching and frequently I found myself feeling utterly emotionally drained. On the one hand this certainly increased the tension and impact (I dislike books where you know everyone is safe), on the other hand it gets if anything a little too much. After things start going wrong, they gradually descend in a downward spiral to the point that I actually felt myself almost numbed by them. This also made the actual conclusion to the plot and the mystery feel quite superfluous since I already hit the emotional nadir of the book a good while before and at that point I just wanted to see people survive, and no longer cared about the mystery elements. I do feel Greenland should have had Tabitha succeed at least a little between her repeated batterings by fate.
The plot was not helped by Tabitha herself not being a particularly nice or heroic character either, meaning that often the ways she relates to those around her, both in the present and in the adventures she recounts about her earlier life, while very understandable are not exactly endearing or uplifting. Indeed here is perhaps where Greenland's sardonic style is slightly inadequate since though we see Tabitha angry, amused, careless and lucky, we never really see her happy or hopeful. Indeed even when remembering her first romantic encounter it is made pretty clear this is nothing more than a basic physical necessity. While there is nothing wrong with this, at the same time it is very difficult to sympathize with someone who it seems has so little capacity for either her own happiness or of feeling for others. In fact about the closest Tabitha comes to having a real friend or lover is her relationship to her ship's AI. Of course she's not a villain either, and does occasionally do decent things for others especially when things get particularly grim, however much as she is easy to understand, at the same time she doesn't so much progress through the plot as she does survive it. This, while making for an incredibly emotionally difficult book to read, at the same time made matters less than satisfactory, particularly since while there is an overall major climax at the end, and several quite uplifting passages and speculations, Tabitha's story simply peters out with no resolution.
Greenland has written other books in the Plenty series, but I don't know if they involve Tabitha Jute or not, however I very much hope that isn't the end of her story, as though I had to work fairly hard on some occasions to feel sympathy for Tabitha, at the end there is no denying that you want to see her succeed, if nothing else because of all the things she's gone through.
Take Back Plenty is not an easy read, either stylistically or emotionally, for all it features some high octane escapes, unique aliens, a large and diverse world to explore and a mystery to be solved, however though I do feel somewhat let down by the book's treatment of its protagonist, I can't deny it was an amazing journey and one I'd recommend to any fans of SF, or indeed anyone interested in some highly unique writing.
An amazing journey and one I'd recommend to any fans of SF
Review by Dark
8/10 from 1 reviews
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