Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost (Chronicles of Isambard Smith: Book 1)

Space Captain Smith captures the ethos of the British Empire at the height of the Raj and transposes it into Space in the 25th Century. The British Space Empire vies for control of the galaxy with several other power bases the mightiest of which is the evil Ghast Empire - a race of humanoid insects that slavishly obey the wishes of their revered leader: to eliminate all humans!

The protagonist, Space Captain Isambard Smith, is a stereotypical English officer: a tea drinking gentleman sporting a magnificent handlebar moustache upon his stiff-upper lip. His unwavering devotion to the British Space Empire fosters his unassailable sense of right and wrong and inspires feats of derring-do and even heroism.

The story begins with Smith being assigned Captaincy of the decrepit but functional space-ship John Pym - the polar opposite of the Imperial Dreadnought of his dreams. The crew comprises his best friend Suruk, a homicidal alien with a penchant for collecting the heads of the vanquished to honour his ancestors, and pilot Polly Carveth, a renegade pleasure android whose sexual repression fuels a delicious stream of innuendo worthy of a script for "Carry on Astronaut". Technically there is also Carveth's hamster Gerald but he features so little in the tale that we can comfortably ignore him. Their mission is to safely escort herbalist Rhianna Mitchell from the politically neutral new-age orbiting platform of New Francisco (which the Empire seeks to liberate from the clutches of free-love and pot-smoking idleness) across the galaxy to Midlight, a space port on Kane's World. We are not initially party to why Rhianna is important to the Empire nor why she is to be eliminated as a final resort rather than be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Suffice it to say that Rhianna carries a hidden secret that must be protected from falling into the wrong hands. Given this, you might rightly guess that this mundane task rapidly proves to be anything but as Smith and the crew fight to protect Rhianna from a series of dangerous encounters with the likes of Void Sharks, the powerful religious zealots of the Republic of Eden, and the "large bottomed" evil Ghasts themselves.

My initial impressions are that Toby Frost's first novel is even more English than it first seems. Despite drawing obvious inspiration from the "glorious" past achievements of the British Empire, and having it's basis firmly in the uncharted possibilities of the future, the narrative is very much phrased in the contemporaneous vernacular of Sunset Britain. The characters combined exhibit all the modern "Broken-British" traits we know of: promiscuity, violence, beer, apathy, everything being a bit run-down and second-rate. But to balance this out he brings out our sense of fair-play, our love of tea and of course our abiding love of self-deprecating humour. Take Smith for example. Here we have a chap outwardly exhibiting all the qualities of an officer and gentleman. Yet it's quickly apparent that he's actually a fish out of water a.k.a. "a bit crap". Essentially a frustrated desk-clerk, he's clueless as to how the ship or it's crew operate, he's awkward around the fairer sex and despite grand aspirations, he's resigned to his lot. Even his bravado has more to do with deep-rooted repression as a consequence of being bullied at public school. Yet despite all this, when the chips are down he's still manages to dig down and prove himself a man that gets the job done. The sort of guy that (for reasons I was unable to fathom) inspires loyalty and respect from such an able killer as Suruk.

The narrative itself could mistakenly be described as formulaic and uninspiring, being little more than a framework upon which to hang the boundless innuendo and spot-the-sci-fi references (of which there were plenty enough to keep this nerd happy). Certainly it has a "first book" feel, at times lacking confidence in itself and occasionally I felt Frost tried too hard to be satirical, almost becoming clichéd to the point of plagiarism. However I forgave this foible because I believe what he was trying to do was pay homage to those other English peculiarities: the Carry On film and the Christmas pantomime. [For non-English readers, a panto is a wonderful excuse for men to dress up as women (and vice versa), get up on stage and shamelessly over-act identifiable stereotypes. The audience is expected and actively encouraged to participate in the fun which follows certain rules: you are expected to boo and hiss all the villains (shout "look behind you" etc), to cheer on the goodies, to laugh raucously at the inevitable innuendo, cringe at the rubbish jokes and to generally join in with the fun. As an exercise I'll leave the reader to research Carry On films :)]. To my eyes pretty much all the characters in Space Captain Smith are Pantomime characters: The Edenites (Boo!), the evil Ghasts (Boo! Hiss! Look behind you! etc), the heroic Smith (Huzzah!), the sexy Rhianna (*Wolf Whistle*) the rude Carveth (Ooooo lol!) - you get the picture. Both the Carry On film and the Pantomime are natural successors to the cheeky seaside postcard: they all revel in their own tawdriness, having the flimsiest of premises to justify the jokes. In this respect I believe Frost successfully tapped into the same vein with Space Captain Smith.

For fans of Steampunk, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Pratchett, the aforementioned Carry On films/Pantomimes and anyone with a uniquely English sense of humour, this book would make an ideal read - perhaps on holiday or something light between more substantial books? Certainly I found a couple of laugh-out-loud moments. Toby Frost has made a creditable effort on his first book, and I look forward to reading the next in the series (God Emperor of Didcot). I just hope for his clients' sakes that his lawyering isn't suffering as a result!

* Incidentally, Toby Frost has released a few Space Captain Smith Christmas short stories for free on his website which may offer an insight into his style and sense of humour. I say "may" as I have yet to read them myself!

8/10 Ideal for fans of Steampunk, Red Dwarf, Blackadder and Pratchett.

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