Thursday, January 10, 2019

Birthday Review: Ascending, by James Alan Gardner

Ascending, by James Alan Gardner

a review by Rich Horton

Today is James Alan Gardner's 63rd birthday. In his honor, here's a review I did for my old blog of his novel Ascending. I will add that I hadn't seen a novel from Gardner in over a decade until new novels appeared in each of the past two years: All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded. A welcome return indeed!

Ascending was James Alan Gardner's fifth novel, and his fourth about Festina Ramos, an "Explorer" with the Navy of the future Human Technocracy.  (Besides those four novels, all with one word titles (Expendable, Vigilant, and Hunted being the other three), he has written Commitment Hour, which does not seem to be about Festina.)  Festina was the protagonist of Gardner's first novel, in which we learn the general setup of his future history, to wit 1) humans (and a number of other alien species) have been given the secret of FTL travel as well as some other nice stuff such as life extension treatments by apparently benevolent aliens, 2) the more advanced aliens are the controlling races of the League of Peoples, a very loose confederation of beings that operates with one simple law: anyone who might kill another sentient being is considered non-sentient, and cannot travel outside their own Solar System: if they do, they die, instantly and mysteriously; and 3) the Human Navy's Explorer Corps is composed of disabled and disfigured people who are considered "expendable" because of their handicaps, thus handy for being sent on dangerous missions.  John Clute called this last idea the silliest idea he had ever seen in SF, or words to that effect, and I agree.

In Expendable, book 1, Festina was sent to Melaquin, an Earthlike planet from which no Explorer has returned -- it turns out that it's a parking spot for rebellious Admirals and other people the Technocracy wants to dump without killing.  It also turns out that it is inhabited by a race of glass people who look exactly like humans but who are transparent.  This race is dying out because they tend to get "Tired Brains" at the age of 50 -- and though they are very hard to kill, they just lay down and vegetate forever. Only a few are alive in this book, and Festina befriends one of them, a woman named Oar.  But at the end of Expendable, Festina has exposed the improper use of Melaquin, so the Technocracy has to abandon the planet, and she leaves Oar behind, believing her dead after an 80 story fall.

After Expendable Festina is no longer the POV character, but in each book she is an important secondary character.  Vigilant and Hunted are mostly unlinked separate stories.  Ascending, though, resumes on Melaquin, with Oar having awoken from a 4 year sleep, apparently cured of her injuries. She has been discovered by a criminal of the Divian species named Uclodd Unorr: a short orange humanoid.  He has been hired to spirit Oar away before the Technocracy council of Admirals finds her, because they wish to make sure she cannot testify against them about the crimes on Melaquin.  So Uclodd, his wife Lajoolie, and Oar are soon running away in the intelligent ship Starbiter.  But they find that not only is the Human navy after them, so is a powerful alien species called the Shaddill -- the very species which sold FTL technology to Divians and Humans, and which is believed to have created Oar's people in the distant past.  After some hair raising adventures, they encounter Festina Ramos, then another strange alien species, the Cashlings. All the while Oar is in contact with a weird alien named the Pollisand, who claims to have brought her back from the dead, and who wishes her help in ridding the universe of the evil Shaddill.

The book is quite fun to read.  It is told in Oar's inimitable voice, familiar to readers of Expendable: she is childish but charming, desperate for attention, very egotistical, profane.  The reasons for all this are explained in the book.  The voice is fun to read, and the action of the book is quite exciting as well.  At the same time, there are caveats.  The whole setup for Gardner's future is really absurd.  Moreover, the science in these books is extremely rubbery, pretty much whatever it needs to be for plot purposes at any one time.  I have seen a number of comments from readers for whom all this is too much, and they can't enjoy the books.  I find that thoroughly understandable -- I can only say that I do like the books, albeit with reservations and a certain amount of eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising.  I made a comment, in a review of one of the earlier books, that they reminded me, in some ways, of '50s SF: in the rubbery but fun science, and in the whole insouciance of the approach to things.  I will say that Gardner's imagination is active: his aliens, though very humanlike in character, are neatly designed, and his tech, wacky is it is, is also often quite clever.

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