My life in outer space


The Mind Pool – Charles Sheffield (1986)

The Mind Pool

The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.


This Is the Way the World Ends – James Morrow (1986)

This Is the Way the World Ends

George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.

The Source (Necroscope III) – Brian Lumley (1989)

Necroscope III: The Source (Necroscope, #3)

It’s a very odd thing to come to terms with, but there’s something very cosy about Lumley’s work. Maybe it’s a nostalgia for simpler times when there were good people and bad people (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) and there was an Iron Curtain.
Maybe it’s because one knows it’s all going to be all right at the end of the novel – at least until the next one – or maybe it’s because Lumley’s world harks back to an era earlier than the Nineteen Eighties. There’s something very quaintly dated about E-Branch which is more Bletchley Park than a Secret Intelligence Department of the Nineteen Eighties.
E-Branch is of course the British Government’s ESPer division, a group of people with paranormal powers set up to counter the USSR’s own paranormal division.
Michael ‘Jazz’ Simmons is a non-ESP member of British Intelligence and in Perchorsk, Russia, investigating a ravine, the bottom of which has been coated with lead.
Simmons is captured and taken into the base below the lead shielding where he discovers the truth. A botched attempt by the USSR to employ Star Wars laser technology resulted in a malfunction which caused the pent up laser energy to create a ‘grey hole’, a gleaming sphere suspended within a cavern which permits a one-way trip for organic beings from our Earth to a parallel world, or from there to here.
The other world is the world of the Wamphyri, and some specimens have already traveled through to our world.
Now Khuv, the security chief in charge of Perchorsk, is going to send Jazz Simmons through.
Harry Keogh is back after five years in the wilderness searching for his wife and young son. They do not appear to be in the world of the living or the dead.
Darcy Clarke, now in charge of E-Branch, finds Jazz Simmons’ disappearance equally baffling as jazz was being monitored by an E-Branch sensitive, and connects it to the disappearances of Harry’s family.
The narrative then alternates between events here and in the world of the Wamphyri.
It’s a much stronger novel than Necroscope II – Wamphyri and allows Lumley to examine what Wamphyri life might be like if these lone predators had to live and share resources with each other.
If nothing else this series is a wonderful reinvention of pulp fiction, and one gets the impression (by some kind of literary osmosis) that Lumley loved writing this stuff just as much enjoyed reading it. It was never going to win any Hugo awards but to be honest, given the choice of reading one or two of their less justifiable nominations and these, I’d go for the Wamphyri every time.

Tea With The Black Dragon – RA MacAvoy (1983)

Tea with the Black Dragon (Black Dragon, #1)

I do like those novels which are hard to classify. Despite being on the genre award lists this is certainly not SF and it is perhaps only borderline Fantasy. It is however, a wonderfully written piece full of poetic imagery and metaphor.
Martha is a middle-aged musician, a classically trained violinist who – for various reasons – now tours the country with a ceili band. She has come to San Francisco having received a worrying invitation from her daughter Liz who has booked her into an expensive hotel on the coast.
At the bar, the barman introduces her to an intriguing oriental guest, Mayland Long, who invites her to take tea with him. There she explains that her daughter has gone missing, while being absently fascinated by Mayland’s extraordinarily long fingers.
Mayland is much taken with Martha, since it seems that she embodies something he has been searching for.
We soon learn that Mayland has not always been human and was once a Chinese Imperial Black dragon. Why and how Mayland became human is not important but is revealed later in the novel.
Mayland offers to help Martha search for her daughter and thus begins a brief but marvellous adventure which combines Buddhist philosophy, tea, computer science, crooked businessman, hi tech fraud and love.
MacAvoy has a very individual style and in this novel at least there is a keen sense of the visual. When Mayland discovers Martha’s daughter we are treated to his view of her taste in décor and furnishings which seems to change from room to room.

Liz Macnamara’s home was sharp angled, glacial pale. The walls were neither ecru, dove nor cream but a white so pure as to shimmer with blue. On the bare, bleached oak floor were scattered cobalt Rya rugs, like holes in smooth ice, On a table in the dining ell rested a tray of Swedish glass, glinting smooth and colorless.’ (Chapter 6)

I have often criticised short novels for containing more characters than the word count can comfortably support. This however is a masterclass in how to deploy characters. There are probably no more than eight characters in the entire book and every one (even those that appear briefly) are deftly painted.
It’s an unusual novel which no doubt contains additional symbolism that one may not pick up on a first reading. Highly recommended.

Necroscope II – Wamphyri – Brian Lumley (1988)

Necroscope II: Wamphyri! (Necroscope, # 2)

One feels that Lumley regretted having killed off Harry Keogh in the first novel, ‘Necroscope‘, and felt duty bound to bring him back. Harry is not exactly dead but in an incorporeal state wandering around in the Moebius continuum while tethered psychically to his unborn son.
Much of the narrative is given over to the backstories of Faethor and Thibor Ferenczy, ancient vampires of Romania. Thibor, one will recall from ‘Necroscope I’ is the one from whom Boris Dragosani received his vampire egg.
This is not the only way however that vampires can create new vampires. Following a skiing accident, Georgina and Ilyan Bodescu end up on top of Thibor’s grave. Ilyan is dead, but Georgina is alive and pregnant. While she lies there unconscious the insidious pseudopods of Thibor’s vampire flesh enter her body and infect the unborn child.
And so, in England, Yulian Bodescus grows up and inevitably draws the attention of the UK E-branch who elect to contact their Russian counterparts to fight against a common foe, aided by the ghostly presence of Harry Keogh.
The good guys have to battle both vampires and the KGB, which makes this part-horror, part spy thriller with a little SF rationale thrown in for good measure. Lumley’s vampires are symbiotic beasties that live within the human body, giving the host strength and longevity in return for blood, although here Lumley slightly confuses the issue with Yulian’s christening, an Omen type scene, which seems to suggest a supernatural religious element, given that the baby so vehemently did not want to be baptised that storms erupted and the vicar died of shock. Logically, it should not matter to these vampires whether they are baptised or not.
Lumley orchestrates the entire shooting-match very well and pulls the threads together into a satisfactory denouement. The author, for all his faults – this novel in particular is a little overburdened with characters, many of whom are one-dimensional – has a solid fan base. Although the Necroscope books will never be thought of as great literature, Lumley has certainly brought some new blood and a novel concept to the vampire genre.

Chung Kuo I – The Middle Kingdom – David Wingrove (1989)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo, #1)

‘How many billions lived in the City that filled the great northern plains of Europe? The two men crab-scuttling across the dome that roofed the city neither knew nor cared. They thought only of the assassination that was their task.

Chung Kuo. For three thousand years the world-encompassing Empire of the Han had endured. War and famine long banished, the Council of Seven ruled with absolute authority. Their boast: that the Great Wheel of Change itself had ceased to turn.

Yet at that moment of supreme strength and confidence, Chung Kuo was suddenly vulnerable. A challenge had arisen from men who dreamed of Change – although Change would mean war and a return to all the old half-forgotten savageries of the past.’

Blurb from the 1990 NEL paperback edition.

In the 22nd Century, China has control of the Earth and has turned its continents into seven enclosed cities, each ruled by a Tang, one of The Seven; the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom.
Each city consists of many levels, socially and physically distinct and each citizen’s behaviour determines whether they rise or fall from their level.
The Seven control everything and impose Edicts against technological progress, seeking to keep the peace by maintaining a social status quo by halting the great wheel of change.
In this generation, however, there appear several individuals whose effect on society, for good or ill, will herald change.
Chinese are known as Han, and compose the majority of the ruling classes. Europeans or ‘Hung mao’, have been assimilated into Chinese culture to a large degree but there is a faction of Dispersionists who wish to build starships to colonise other stars, creating a society outside of the Tang’s control.
Major DeVore, originally a high-placed officer in the Tang’s forces, is part of the Dispersionists’ terrorist wing and organises the assassination of a Minister, which sets in motion a chain of political events; events which DeVore strategically controls and exploits for his own ends like a round of his favourite game, Wei-Chi.
This is the first volume of a very under-rated (although possibly ultimately flawed) epic. From Nineteen Eighty-Nine, it was ‘The Wire’ of its age, with its multi-character viewpoint covering all sectors of society from the wretched cannibal society of The Clay (the lightless bottom level) to the Tang himself.
Over the preceding century the Han have rewritten Earth history to suggest that Chung Kuo has always been the dominant civilisation and a ministry exists to ensure that any other historical alternative theory or account is treated as treason.
In this volume we follow several key characters; DeVore, Li Shai Tung, the Tang of City Europe; Li Yuan, the Tang’s son; Kim Ward, a scientific prodigy refugee from The Clay; Ben Shepherd; a cloned advisor to the Tang administration; Karr and Chen, trained fighters from the lower levels who now work for the Tang’s security forces.
It is certainly far more than an SF blockbuster thriller. The complex political manoeuvring and the interweaving individual storylines are handled very well, and the writing occasionally approaches the profound.
On its first publication there were complaints in the journal of the British Science Fiction Association about its sexual elements and one section in particular of extreme sexual violence, although one has to say that the section needs to be looked at in context. Is this merely an apt demonstration of DeVore’s methods of controlling people and the depths of his depravity?

The original series which ran to eight large volumes was marred by the publisher’s insistence on ending the series with volume eight, when the original plan was nine books. The original ending was therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. Wingrove has recently revised and expanded the entire series which is being released in twenty shorter volumes, the first volume of which is ‘Son of Heaven’ (2011).

Zodiac – Neal Stephenson (1988)


‘In Boston, two centuries after the Tea Party, harbour dumping is still a favourite local sport, only these days it’s major corporations piping toxic wastes into the water. Environmentalist and professional-pain-in-the-ass Sangamon Taylor is Boston’s latter-day Paul Revere, spreading the word from a 40-horsepower Zodiac raft. Embarrassing powerful corporations in highly telegenic ways is the perfect method of making enemies, and Taylor has a collection that would do any rabble-rouser proud.
After his latest exploit, he’s wanted by the FBI, possibly by the Mafia, and definitely by a group of Satanist angel-dust heads who think he’s looking for a PCP factory, not PCB contamination.
Pretty soon, dodging bullets is the least of Taylor’s problems – because somewhere out there are an unhinged genetic engineer and a lab-concocted bacterium that could destroy all ocean life – and that’s just for starters.’

Blurb from the 2001 Arrow paperback edition

Sangamon Taylor is a vigilante exposer of companies who illegally dump toxic waste. He lives in Boston, a city built mostly on waterways with a bay which is Taylor’s main area of investigation. Upon discovering illegal pipelines, he and his team cap them and through a process of media exposure usually have the factory or facility shut down, although not necessarily managing to prove that the parent company was to blame.
Things become a little difficult for Taylor when he discovers PCB contaminated lobsters (which when consumed by humans produce symptoms of chloracine poisoning .i.e. which is a sign that the body is seriously contaminated) and high levels of PCBs in the waters of the harbour.
Having already received sinister threats from a heavy metal satanic cult who think he is investigating their drug factory, Taylor is then pursued by men trying to kill him. This seems to be linked to his old college friend Dolmacher who, it transpires, has created a genetically engineered bacterium which feeds on PCBs and renders them harmless.
Things take a turn for the worse when his pursuers try to kill him, a bomb is found in the cellar of his house, and he is labelled as a terrorist.
In order to redeem himself, Taylor must track down Dolmacher (who has disappeared leaving the corpse of a hitman in his bath) and expose the Basco Corporation for dumping toxic waste in the harbour.
Stephenson rather overcomplicates the plot and perhaps the novel suffers from an excess of minor characters who tend to blend into each other.
On the other hand, it is firmly grounded in the realities of toxic waste and should be applauded for making its readers more aware of what the consequences might be should these sort of substances leak into the food chain.

Subspace Encounter – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1983)

Subspace Encounter (Panther Bks.)

This is a novel left unfinished by Smith and subsequently completed by LA Eshbach with the help of Smith’s notes and an additional manuscript which Smith had sent to Frederik Pohl, and one which did not see publication until almost twenty years after Smith’s death. It’s a sequel to ‘Subspace Explorers’ set in a future where many humans have developed their ‘psionic’ powers and are termed psiontists. Humanity has spread out into the galaxy due to the discovery of ‘subspace’.
Meanwhile, in a neighbouring dimension, another race of humans has founded an interplanetary civilisation, but one in which a communistic dictatorship is in charge.
‘Psiontists’ are treated as witches and charlatans here and any with psionic powers have to keep the fact a secret. An underground organisation of psiontists are working toward a revolutionary end.
In our universe, a group of psiontists aboard a fortified ship are investigating unexplained explosions and danger to ships (something that also appears to be happening in the second universe). Andrews, the leader of the team, has deduced that there is a psionic supermind at work somewhere, and while in rapport with his wife very briefly experiences the presence of the supermind which shows him the office of the dictator of Slaar, the evil empire of the other universe.
Smith appears, as he grew older, to have become more preoccupied with sex, or perhaps the more permissive publishers of the sixties permitted him liberties he could not take in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties. Certainly in ‘Galaxy Primes’ we see a marked shift toward eroticism, where previously he would have restricted himself to describing a woman as a ‘Seven Sector Call Out’ and left it at that.
There was a certain chasteness in the Lensman saga that is done away with here. When Rodnar and Starrlah (psiontists of the Second Universe) first meet each other they grapple with such reckless abandon that he bursts the stitches of a wound he incurred in a gladiatorial battle.
There’s also a peculiar (and somewhat paradoxical) attitude to race. All the main protagonists are fit, young white Anglo Saxon types. The women are blonde for the most part. Smith points out that the differently skin-toned humans in the Second Universe all have their own worlds, and seldom marry or interbreed. The supreme tyrant, who is white, is considered by the protagonists of both universes to be, on the whole, not a bad egg, despite the fact he has been feeding his citizens to caged giant eagles for most of his career.
It later becomes evident that the worst aspects of this tyrannical civilisation are displayed by the dark skinned hook-nosed residents of Gharsh.
It’s a curious throwback to the pulp SF of the 1930s and before, such as Ray Cummings ‘The White Invaders’ in which dark-skinned brutes from another dimension invade earth to slake their desire for white Earth women. Indeed, the Gharshian whom Rodnar defeated in the arena and from whom he obtained his wound, had set his sights on Starrlah, to her horror and dismay.
There is no defence of this. Clearly there was no need to have included the background detail of racial segregation or to have made the Gharshians basically Arabic.
Smith was never a practitioner of decent dialogue either. He attempts to impose a form of hippy ‘right on daddio’ Sixties linguistics to his protagonists which is both stilted and confusing (see also van Vogt’s ‘Children of Tomorrow’). Added to this, when the Second Universe psiontists go undercover on the planet Gharsh, they adopt a local dialect and things get a bit surreal when they start talking about ‘whankers’.
The psiontists of both universes eventually meet up and unite, finding common ground in the language of science.
As is explained in the introduction, this novel was completed by LA Eshbach from drafts of manuscripts left by Smith and may well have been a different beast had Smith lived to finish it himself. Given the final publication date, it is something that would be of interest to Smith completists and SF historians rather than those seeking quality SF in the early Nineteen Eighties, although no doubt the publishers were hoping to cash in on the resurgence of interest in Smith in the Seventies when his Lensman series experienced an unexpected revival.
One of Smith’s great talents was for making the vastness of space real. One got a sense of the immensity of the universe, the vast empty distances that lie between one star and another. There is little of that here, which pains me somewhat.
If there can be such a thing as a pulp-fiction masterpiece then his Skylark, and certainly his Lensman series were unquestionably that; great stonking Space Opera sagas that still evoke that sense of wonder, or at least a vestige of it.
There are occasional flashes of the old ‘Doc’ here, but the moments are too few and far between.

Rhialto the Marvellous – Jack Vance (1984)

Rhialto the Marvellous (The Dying Earth, #4)

Some thirty-three years after ‘The Dying Earth’, Vance returns to the last days of Earth with a trio of inter-related tales surrounding Rhialto the Marvellous, leading member of a cabal of magicians whose petty squabbles with each other are not only delivered with sublime dialogue but which hold a mirror to the interpersonal politics which go on within any organisation.
It lacks the fire and energy of the earliest work, but this is mature Vance, revelling in his mastery of the English language, often bamboozling the reader with his heady poetic mixture of genuine arcane words and those which are born of the author.
Vance’s heroes are of a type but that define is paradoxically hard to define. One could maybe call it ‘cardboard complex’. Rhialto for instance is both arrogant yet romantic, sardonic and amoral.
The magicians, including Rhialto, have no moral qualms with regard to slavery. Creatures with magical powers or talents are held in indenture and work off their points through hard work and loyalty to their masters.
There is much dry humour here, particularly in the dialogue. Vance exposes the absurdities of human society as he always does (and yet so well).
In the second tale a religious sect selects a thousand perfect people to be the basis for a new race. They are sealed into eggs inside a temple to be ‘hatched’ in a thousand years time. Rhialto, jumping through time in search of the stolen crystal rulebook of the Magicians (which is sealed in the temple with eggs) finds that the religion has collapsed with society and that a tribe of cannibals have been feasting on the future Master Race, breaking open their eggs and roasting the occupants.
This is stylish prose with a deft use of language. One can clearly see the influence of Clark Ashton Smith and one suspects that M John Harrison (particularly in his Viriconium sequence) might owe something to Vance and his societies of grotesques.
The writing style, poetic and verbose, complements the baroque nature of Vance’s future Earth and partly by this device allows us to believe that – as in the third tale – the magicians leave the Earth in a Palace-cum-spaceship and head off for the edge of the Universe to hunt for lost Morreion, an ancient magician, previously thought to be dead. Vance thus moves from what many would consider to be the conventions of fantasy, into those of science fiction without having to adapt the style or tone.

Infinity Hold – Barry B Longyear (1989)

Infinity Hold

The premise is that sometime in the near future when Humanity has reached the stars, the solution to overcrowded prisons should be to take all the prisoners and dump them on an inhospitable world.
Longyear’s aim, presumably, was to examine how the prisoners might react, survive, organise etc. once the ship had abandoned them on the planet Tartarus.
The novel is narrated by petty criminal Bando Nicos, an intelligent but misguided man who is forced to reassess his past and the choices he made in life once he is on the planet.
There he is forced by circumstance to help organise the prisoners and build a workable society.
The newly deposited prisoners are not the first to be transported there however and previous transportees have already formed themselves into large gangs, which is another obstacle that the new arrivals have to face.
However, a young man, Garoit, puts forward the notion that the prisoners should decide for themselves democratically how things should be run. As the group, heading across a desert to try and find a place to settle (knowing that they will need to face other gangs en route) face various crises, laws and rules of behaviour begin to evolve. Bando finds himself commissioned as the gang’s policeman and initiates several laws himself. Laws are recorded by his second in command and as they progress they are written out and passed around.
It’s an interesting concept and the novel is a decent read. Longyear creates prison jargon that one gets the hang of quite quickly and sketches out the backstories of some of the more colourful ‘sharks’ or prisoners.
It falls down on two counts. The first is that Longyear underestimates the tendency of large uncontrolled groups to behave recklessly. We are expected to believe that several thousand people, many of them dangerously violent, male and female, previously segregated, are dumped on a hostile world with little food, and that they (for the most part) decide to behave in a civilised way and follow their elected leaders to the promised land.
There’s no incidents of rape until two thirds of the way into the novel. One would suggest that men who had been confined for years on end suddenly finding themselves in the presence of thousands of women – and with no police or prison officers on the scene – would be a recipe for chaos and carnage. As it turns out in the case of the one rape that is reported the victim is a male prisoner, and to be fair the situation is handled well, without being sensationalised.
The second failing is the setting. The planet has a 27 hour day, deserts and some fertile areas. The plants are edible. the atmosphere and gravity is Earth normal. the alien environment obviously does not concern Longyear, but had he made more of the challenges faced by an alien world combined with the mindsets of several thousand hardened criminals suddenly released into a sort of freedom, then this would be a much better novel. Longyear. one suspects, feels that this idea can only be fully realised within the context of SF. In that I believe he is correct. There aren’t any large islands or inaccessible valleys on or in which to drop a large number of unwanted people. necessarily then, it would need to be another world.
Logistically, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Would any government go to the expense of regularly carting thousands of prisoners across the galaxy, just to drop them off on a remote planet?
However, it’s an interesting morality tale, with themes of institutional corruption, redemption, the nature of law and even love.