Riding high on the contrails of The Kings of Eternity, perhaps his most excellent effort to date, as well as his least conventional, Eric Brown returns to known space in The Devil’s Nebula, to revisit some familiar faces. Ahoy there, evil aliens!
Principally an introduction to Weird Space, which is to say Abaddon Books’ latest shared world setting, The Devil’s Nebula is a novel as fun and undemanding as – and not a lot longer than – any episode of Farscape or Firefly... though I fear it goes in want of the wit and the warmth that made those gone but not forgotten science-fiction series so smart and remarkable.
And the width. Because this is not, shall we say, a narrative concerned with fundamental questions of “life, death, existence, non-existence. The arbitrary nature of the universe; the chaos, the order.” There’s no harm in that, of course, no inherent foul; after all, not every novel need occupy itself with deep and meaningful experiences. Instead, The Devil’s Nebula’s core focus is on interstellar antics — such as the near miss with which it begins, when deep in enemy territory, the cast-offs who crew The Paradoxical Poet touch down on Vetch-controlled Hesperides.
Their mission, should they choose to accept it? To recover a rare statuette for a black-market client with more money than sense — with all due deference, the only variety of client our three thieves are likely to encounter in their current line of work. They’ve been ekeing out a living doing this sort of thing for years, we hear, and it if hasn’t made them rich then at least it’s kept The Paradoxical Poet afloat amongst the stars, and its crew, led by Ed Carew, always a scant step ahead of the Expansion forces which would gleefully blow them to pieces.
That is, until now. Because on this occasion, their luck looks to have run right out, leaving Ed and Jed and Lania with a decade’s worth of bad behaviour to pay for. Having narrowly avoided being torn limb from limb by a six-legged kreesh that has no business being on Hesperides anyway, the crew have a close encounter with a strange alien, only to escape basically unscathed, with their priceless prize safely secured. So far, so good... but then they ride straight into the embrace of an army awaiting them in orbit.
Initially, the crew are sure that they’ll be executed, but as it happens, the Expansion have other, equally nefarious plans for our affable anti-heroes. They give them a choice: for their many and various crimes, a death sentence, or else they can “volunteer” to take a shiny new ship on a suicide mission into the uncharted space beyond the hotly contested territory of the Vetch. Truth be told, it’s no choice at all, so into the unknown they go.
What they find there is as weird and wonderful as The Devil’s Nebula gets:
“[Ed] had thought that his life of old, journeying among the stars of human space, interpreting the law as it suited him, had been about as thrilling as he could ever hope for. But he had to admit that he was now living through events that, as a star-struck child on far-away Temeredes, he could scarcely have dreamed about. And this time, the success of the mission would affect more people across the inhabited galaxy than any of his exploits to date. Only he and his small team had gained from his past ventures, even though he had liked to tell himself that the petty infringements in which he indulged were one in the eye for the Expansion authorities. The Weird were far more dangerous than the Expansion hierarchy, and he could not help but smile at the irony [...] that he was now fighting to protect his erstwhile enemies."
This inversion is reasonably neat, but nowhere near as meaty as it might have been. Meanwhile, as aforementioned, as other as Weird space seems to our lacklustre cast of characters, experienced science fiction readers are apt to find it more than faintly familiar. There are no puzzling politics to get to grips with, and few truly extraterrestrial environs to test our imaginative mettle: only a simplistic scenario – space cowboys versus evil aliens – and a real mish-mash of a milieu.
The baddies, at least, are interesting: grotesque hive-mind monsters that have cast themselves as gods of a crash-landed cult. Brown paints the Weird very well, but the same can’t be said of his gang of good guys. Perhaps the most archetypal is Ed himself, a cold, old captain – seemingly uncaring yet secretly sentimental – in the mode of Battlestar Galactica’s Adama, but crucially lacking that character’s gravitas. Initially, Brown goes out of his way to set up a sort of father/daughter dynamic between Ed and The Paradoxical Poet’s pretty pilot Lania, so it’s something of a shock when halfway through The Devil’s Nebula – just after Jed, a cowardly ex-con who is hardly worth mentioning, suddenly disappears – their relationship begins to, uh... bloom.
In this instance, and in others, Brown’s character development can come across as rather irrational, so it can be difficult to truly care about these three thieves, far less their fates — thus the onus falls on the story. Its failures, then, are doubly disappointing. The Devil’s Nebula certainly pelts along at a fair pace, however its content and execution are largely uninspired. Few of the book’s reversals of fortune seem a surprise, and in none does one sense any genuine jeopardy. Carew’s crew are for all intents and purposes indestructible, and it follows that even the most spectacular set-pieces, wherein all appears to be lost, lack impact.
Now The Devil’s Nebula is never boring; I’ll give it that, and gladly. It’s forgettable, yes – and inelegant, assuredly – but so very fast as to speed past, and feisty enough to excite at times. If its primary purpose was simply to set the scene for a strange shared world wherein anything and everything science-fictional can happen, then in that respect it’s a runaway success. Weird Space is like The Lost Fleet meets Mass Effect, and as in the first installments of these similar series, one senses the best is yet to come. That said, I can’t help but wish Eric Brown had been a smidgen more ambitious, here at the start of his latest spacefaring tale.
Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Science Fiction Foundation. His blog is The Speculative Scotsman, and sometimes he tweets about books, too.