Friday, 13 January 2017

Stupid Humans, by V.R. Craft - 4 Stars

A free copy of this book was supplied to the blog for an honest and independent review.

This new science fiction novel is set in the not too distant future, where they have not unrealistically magical technology, where the physical laws of the Universe are the same, in the scenario that the human race has advanced in fields of engineering and expansion but sadly not in brainpower. More specifically, the time period the story draws from is a few years after a space-time wormhole has been discovered which enables humanity to re-engage with another half of the species which, it turns out, abandoned our planet thousands of years previously and then felt guilty about it. The distinguishing categorization is therefore ‘Humans’ (Homo sapiens from Earth now) and ‘People’ (Homo sapiens from Earth ages ago). Normally this would not be enough time to evolve significant differences in any species except bacteria but the People are more advanced at genetic engineering than us and have opted to upgrade their genetics with additional brains and tails. It isn’t clear whether the sub-species barrier can still be crossed sexually because the human who gets the opportunity to find out is so incompetent that he can’t even get drunken bestiality right (I still have the number for a prop forward from Bootle who said that when they were on tour in Zambia… okay, another time then). The difference between these races’ minds is summed up by their relative attitudes to solving famine: The People advise that there would be enough food for all if the Humans ate plants. The Humans reply “Oh, shut up. We know that” and carry on starving. I’m not a veggie but that neat and indisputable point illustrates the title better than the art work. Before you say it: As I’ve described the dimensions of the fish bowl that the characters swim around in, I won’t reveal and spoil the plot any further for the potential reader.
      You don’t get a 500 and more page novel without a bit of intrigue and development, so I can say it’s a story layered with inter-species tension, wound up rivalries and perceived injustices over medical and technological problems the People are known or believed to have solved but which they’d prefer not to share their recipes for. The human side is willing to share beer, which sums up what they bring to the table really, and the more inventive ones are continually on the lookout for opportunities to steal forbidden knowledge. The bar where they bring the beer and steal the knowledge is a space station on the People side of the wormhole that’s run by an Earth girl expatriate who calls it home because going back isn’t very appealing (she has secrets). This woman has a lot in common with one of those steel marbles bouncing around a pin-ball machine because although she’s the key protagonist that everyone’s watching and charts her course with confident independence, she’s also claimed, redirected, captured, injected, zonked, questioned, insulted and alternately annoyed or wooed by a lot of the station’s other characters. She’s also fascinating because the two species have fallen out for stupid reasons and her placement and behaviour is out of context. People notice things when they’re out of context. They all want to understand her and make her understand her place but she won’t cooperate. Good girl, good Earthling.
      It’s a bit ‘sci-fi’, but within boundaries to avoid the geek factor and there are no nods to other works in the genre. Well done. I thought it was going to be funny (from the title) but then I found it isn’t intended to be. It is definitely not one of those epic and over-arching big idea, galactic empire, multi-species, new languages, good and evil copycat fiascos. What I mean is that there are some space opera sagas where people say things like “Prince Blatula of the Quaargs has sent his Prhypon fighting scorpionistas to conquer the Bfzit continuum” – rubbish in other words. Really over the top. Then in the TV version it’s just a manta ray with flashing doughnuts on it because the description isn’t credible and the film company doesn’t have the budget. In contrast, this book reads like normal civilians (influenced from North America), doing normal things and having sensible conversations but in a world where the technology has got better.
      Differences between races in this book have become realistically and physically wider apart (tails etc) but they are noticed even less than happens on Earth now, where the genetic differences within our species are close to nought percent, as that issue isn’t the bone of contention. It’s more about haves and have nots, then how arrogant and condescending the (apparently) intelligent haves are going to be about their superiority and how idiotic the have nots are going to be in response. It’s an age of discovery, not only of technology but also of species expansion, with a sense that colonies and stretched empires are suddenly conceivable. One of the gadgets that the writer explores that could facilitate the next big step is the game-changing development of a space-time curvature drive that will revolutionise distance travel and make the wormhole just another option. Cool. What isn’t mentioned is whether faster than light travel would also allow the hypothetical passenger to change their position in time, giving them the opportunity to interfere in either sub-species’ cultural development (and not return). Avoiding interference on an intellectual level seems to be another key element of the plot, so not making a total cat’s cradle of it all. The interplay of withholding (snide comments, it’s so unfair) creates a sort of simmering French Revolution-esque atmosphere which stays quite light because the humans are outnumbered on that side of the divide. How upset would we get anyway? Have a beer and get over it.
      I liked reading the book but I did run into what I thought was some unnecessary re-capping, where an event is played out in fully described action and then more characters get together in a room and state what has just happened, as if they’re on stage and educating an audience about unseen events off-stage (but they weren’t off-stage). I have just opened the book randomly to look for any of several examples of this and, it’s probably not the best one but, on pg 277 “It appears to have been a deliberate act of…” discusses something recently shown as a deliberate act of… This is a pretty dismal piece of criticism (nothing major or handicapping), so that churlish observation should be taken in light of an otherwise enjoyable book with good description, attitude, character realization and mysteries to unravel. If that’s the only concern I can dredge up, then a reviewer having nothing much else to whine about is effectively a compliment; the bitch that didn’t bark. I just think that if I do mention a slightly harder edit could improve the flow, then the author will hopefully solve that in their next book and their writing style will be even more accomplished, so I’ll have to try even harder to find something to pretend to get upset about to justify my existence (like a stupid human).
      This book tells me what I already suspected. We aren’t the noblest, most rational and selfless species on our planet and here’s someone who has noticed some of those deficiencies. When you consider human actions from an external or almost alien point of view, it isn’t always a pretty sight but I acknowledge that a full parody would have attacked the subject too hard and the reader might take that sort of criticism personally. Then there’d be mobs of villagers with burning torches rolling up at the author’s house, chanting slogans to the effect that they’re aware that they’re stupid in a private capacity but feel they’re part of something more worthy as a species and don’t need any judgement beyond dying stupidly at some point from something avoidable. I digress. This isn’t the last we’ve heard of V.R. Craft is it? I hope not. It’s a solid first book and, with will and flair as a story teller, there’s surely more good work to come from this author. I just wonder who pissed her off enough to write this, but that’s another story.

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