Poor Scott Freeman. He just wanted to know how I was progressing in Escape Velocity. But similar to the Groucho Marx sentiment that “I don’t want to belong to a club that would accept people like me as a member,” I was in those days, attempting to conceal all varieties of nerd status, even from fellow nerds.
“Have you upgraded your fuel tanks yet?” Scott said with a lisp, as he emptied saliva from his trombone. This was junior high band practice.
“What are you talking about dude?” I said, with brutal denial. The way I saw it was like this: it’s bad enough we’re in band together, let’s not make things worse by admitting we play some uber-dorky video game. Especially not around all these people! But now, after reading Michael Rubens’ The Sheriff of Yrnameer, I feel like I owe Scott Freeman an apology. Yes Scott, I did upgrade my fuel tanks, and I got the heat-seeking missiles, and the radar, and even traded in my ship for a faster one.
The opening chapters of The Sheriff of Yrnameer remind me those Escape Velocity days. For the uninitiated, Escape Velocity (Ambrosia Software) was basically one big Douglas Adams tribute wrapped in a little bit of Brian Daley era Han Solo-ism with a healthy dose of Oregon Trail in space. You traveled around from planet to planet trying to make your way as an indie space-trader, dodging pirates, scoundrels, and occasionally, the man. Ruben’s novel begins in very much the same vein, but on top of evading bounty hunters, scoundrels and the man, the protagonist is a criminal, one up to his ears in debt. Cole is a likeable sort of guy, and while the promotional buzz of this novel promises those aforementioned hints of Douglas Adams, there seems to be another influence at work in the genesis of this protagonist.
“I always imagine Cole as the sort of stupid cousin of the Stainless Steel Rat,” Rubens told me recently, when I questioned him about his SF influences. “A lot of people assume it’s all Douglas Adams, but I was really more into Harry Harrison.” This is part of why this novel is so enjoyable. For someone like me, born in the 80s, and coming of age in the 90s, I learned about things backwards. A planet in Escape Velocity named “Beeblebrox” got me into Douglas Adams, which then later introduced me to the books of Harrison and Robert Asprin. Rubens on the other hand, seemed to get his ideas and humor straight from the source.
“The Stainless Steel Rat was a badass,” Rubens says, “But Cole, in my book, sort of wishes he was that cool.”
The journey of Cole from loveable jerk to reluctant hero forms the main narrative arc of the novel, and while there are familiar tropes being employed here, Rubens handles it deftly and with real wit. I imagine Cole looking like Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck, while talking like Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski.
Speaking of classic Battlestar Galactica, I was reminded very strongly of the episode in which Apollo becomes the temporary sheriff of a town being ravaged by a Cylon gunslinger. (Rubens denies having seen this one, and instead cites the Seven Samurai as what he was ripping off.)
While there is a solid chase sequence, and prolonged encounter with some rabid cyber-zombies, the main plot deals with Cole being made the Sheriff on a little planet called Yrnameer. In Rubens’s universe, all planets are corporately sponsored, making an unsponsored planet, a “your name here” planet, something of a myth. But it turns out there is one, and creatures that inhabit it are basically the nicest, most progressive people ever. Complete with cosmic yoga studios and outer space coffee shops, Yrnameer reminded me more than a little of several hip Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Though none of this comes as a surprise to Cole. In fact, one of the reasons The Sheriff of Yrnameer is so readable is because Cole seems to know everyone. His over-familiarity with the people and creatures he encounters helps move the pacing of the book along considerably. By the time you get to the part of him actually being the Sheriff on Yrnameer, you’ll be shocked the book is almost over.
Rubens, like many good science fiction humorists, doesn’t approach his concepts as ends in themselves but rather as punchlines. There are a lot of good ones, but my favorite is the advent of a substance called “payper.” Payper is an indestructible form of paper, upon which all official documents are printed on, by law. The paradox of how a society assigns anything value is thrown into awesome hilarity here.
There’s more. A race of aliens called Greys (but don’t call them that) who look just like Roswell aliens and are perpetual gamblers. A self-aware computer/robot named Peter the ‘Puter, who is constantly cheerful—the opposite of Marvin the Paranoid Android. There’s also a fun little love triangle, and some honest admissions about just what people really want from relationships.
All of this made me nostalgic for the silly SF stuff I was into back in my band nerd days. This book made me want to dust off some old Battlestar VHS tapes, or download Escape Velocity again. It reminded me why it’s fun to be a nerd, and how great it is that these days we’re the ones in charge anyway.
Though not all of us seem to be out of the nerd closet entirely. Rubens and I chatted a little bit more about Douglas Adams, and I mentioned how Adams wrote for Doctor Who during the Tom Baker era.
“I did not know that,” Rubens said. “I had no idea.”
Sure you didn’t man. We’ve already owned up to Harry Harrison, in front of all these people; let’s not reveal our Doctor Who love just yet.
But it’s okay, your secret’s safe with us.
Ryan Britt writes fiction, non-fiction and plays. His work has appeared with Clarkesworld Magazine, Opium Magazine, Nerve.com and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.