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. Regardless, 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!)