BOOK REVIEW: “Scat” by Jim Graham (2011)

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Regular readers of Republibot (Assuming any survived our recent flame war) may recall that a few months ago I reviewed a book called “Birdie Down” by Jim Graham ( http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cbirdie-down%E2%80...
). I called it the best independently published science fiction E-book I’d read. As that book was a sequel, I decided to give the first book in the series a shot, and I’m happy to say it, too, is a really good book. Mr. Graham has some genuine talent.

Sebastian Scatkiewicz - known by the semi-unfortunate nickname “Scat” - is a former US Marine. We first meet him at the tail end of the “Resource Wars” on earth a few generations into the future. The major power blocs and nations are fighting each other for earth’s declining goodies. The conflict is inherently corrupt, with nations and megacorporations screwing each other left and right even as they fight the enemy in order to gain advantage. The marines - and presumably the population as a whole - are caught in the middle. “Scat” is a somewhat legendary leader in the field, with a history of taking matters into his own hands, even if it’s not particularly politically wise for him to do so.

Jump forward several years: Scat took matters into his own hands one time too many, and he’s now a civilian attempting to make a new life for himself in the off world colonies. The colonies are mostly corporate, and there’s an “Owe my soul to the company store” nature to them, though it’s not nearly so oppressive as that. Still, there’s a feeling of nominal indenture hanging in the air. There’s also a kind of cultural sterility: the companies are pretty strict about whom they allow to emigrate. There are no religious folk, there are no Chinese on any of the worlds we see, because the Chinese have their own space empire and are a political threat, as are the religious. This isn’t one big happy Star Trekian future. The colonized planets are mostly only marginally habitable (Which is a rarely-used plot device that I love), and existence is relatively hardscrabble.

Much of the first half of the book revolves around a mining asteroid, and “Go Down City” on one of the colony worlds. It’s built in a cavern that’s been roofed over, and it’s a really fun location. It feels completely developed and thought out, and feels lived in, like a real place. As a guy who’s written a few books myself, I’m here to tell you that coming up with a location that actually *feels* like a location is no mean feat, but we get such a sense of Go Down that you can almost map some of it in your head. I actually feel like I learned a few literary tricks from that, which I hope to steal in the future.

The plot involves Scat meeting new people like Andrew “Birdie” Goosen and others, and getting embroiled in a revolutionary movement intent on throwing off the shackles of corporate dictatorship. The author is English, and I know that’s going to sound horribly socialist to many readers of this site, but it’s not. It’s more like an “American Revolution in Space” much like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Minus the creepy line marriages) or The Island Worlds or any number of other books. It’s a trope. It’s not a bad trope, however, and the wheels within wheels machinations that lead to the somewhat-spastic not-entirely-successful revolution are pretty interesting, particularly as Scat ends up embroiled in several of them at the same time, and not all on the same side, either.

This reaches a peak, we jump forward five years, and then what basically amounts to a second novel begins.

Something that always fascinates me is how technology changes life in ways we don’t anticipate. Let’s take, for instance, medicine as a random example: let’s say there’s a pill that will double the average human life span, from about 80 years to about 160 years. What effect will that have? Well, for starters every life insurance company in the world goes out of business overnight. Why? Because their profits are based on mortuary charts based on very specific statistics about average longevity. If human life is doubled, then that goes out the window. That means an entire industry is gone, and several hundred thousand people are out of work in the US alone. Meanwhile, the population of the world expands startlingly because people don’t have 2 or 3 or 4 kids and die off. Rather they have kids for twice as long, and don’t die for a very long time themselves. Forget ‘population explosion’, this is more like a ‘population supernova.’ Which means resources would be used at a much greater rate….well you get the idea, right?

That’s *not* what happens here, it’s just an example of something I’ve always been fascinated by: Technology changes life. Sometimes it changes it so much and so rapidly that all our values and struggles get put on the shelf as completely irrelevant. The second half of the book surprisingly explores that: a new technology emerges that makes the revolution more-or-less meaningless. Scat and his buddies are effortlessly captured, and put to work by their previous enemies (and not-entirely-friendly bosses) in the hazardous testing and exploration of this new technology. It’s such a game changer that it threatens to completely re-define the interstellar economy, and the balance of power for all humanity. Beyond that, I can’t tell you more without ruining it.

In the coda, the new technology proves to have a horrifying price that I honestly didn’t see coming, that I’ve never seen used before in a lifetime of reading SF, and which - hopefully - will be the setup for a sequel.

OBSERVATIONS

The sequel, “Birdie Down” (Available here: http://www.amazon.com/Birdie-Down-Rebellion-ebook/dp/B007C24EWE/ref=la_B... ) takes place in the five-year gap between the two halves of this novel. What do we call that? A “Sidequel?” An “Interquel?” Something like that.

On a lot of levels, I actually liked this book a lot more than I did “Birdie Down.” That’s not at all to contradict what I said in my review of that book, which I still believe is the best self-published SF E-book I’ve read. It’s just that this one is so much more ambitious. There’s a ton of world-building here, a lot of characters working at crossed purposes, several major plot twists. “Birdie Down” is more episodic. “Scat” is more epic. There are many balls in the air, then someone shoots the juggler and grabs the balls before they fall, and then it happens again. It’s just kind of neat. The first half of the book is engaging, but as I said above, it’s a trope and nothing we haven’t seen before, even if it’s more fun than we generally see. The second half of the book takes a completely-unforeseen (but logical) hairpin turn into far-less-explored territory, and the coda is…well, I was drop jawed. I don’t get drop jawed often, though I must caution Christian readers that the finale will undoubtedly be pretty disturbing. Conservative Christians may want to give this one a pass, at least until we find out exactly what all this means in the (Eventual) third book in the series.

That said: “Birdie Down” is a better *written* book than “Scat.” This isn’t to say it’s unreadable, simply that this is Mr. Graham’s first book, and he’s a bit less polished here than he is in the next one. It’s an experience thing, but it’s also only incremental, not distracting. He’s got talent, and he’s simply more comfortable with his artistry in the second book than he is here. That minor caveat out of the way, this is a fun book, and a good read.

I particularly liked that this vision of the future doesn’t involve a utopian world state in which everyone gets along. Instead, the earth is much like Europe in the age of empires, with each nation desperately trying to grab on to, and exploit, more territory beyond the continent. It seems to me, logically, that given human nature, that’s likely the way things will play out.

I recommend the book, and eagerly look forward to seeing what Mr. Graham will do next.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Yes, unless you’re an extremely conservative Christian, in which case the conclusion will disturb you.

The book can be purchased here:
http://www.amazon.com/Scat-Universe-ebook/dp/B006OM9GX0/ref=la_B006OZL5Y...

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