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Outpost
Scott Mackay
Tor Books, 349 pages

Outpost
Scott Mackay
Outpost is Canadian Scott Mackay's first novel.

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A review by Todd Richmond

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Outpost is a story about a struggle for freedom and survival, combining elements of science fiction, mystery and suspense. It begins in a prison, clearly not on Earth because of the presence of two suns. The story centers around Felicitas, a seventeen year old woman who is just coming out of a mind-clouded haze. The prisoners in this alien prison are watched and guarded by machines, robots which guide the prisoners around the prison, feed them, and keep them there. A variety of different devices keep the prisoners controlled, including their sleeping pallets. Every night they are strapped to their beds and given a combination of drugs and electronic images which brainwash them and reinforce their dream-like state. The images fed to them are of the crimes that they have committed, a constant reminder of why they are there.

Unfortunately, we discover, the current prisoners are the descendants of the original prisoners, who were forgotten by their wardens. To make the machines care for their children, the original prisoners tattooed their prison identification symbols onto their children. As an unpleasant consequence, however, the crimes of their parents and grandparents are visited upon their children every night.

As the story opens, the prison is beginning to break down. Not maintained for many generations, the machines are beginning to fail, and some of the prisoners, the "superstiti", have managed to awaken from their dream state. They realize the prison is failing and begin to make plans to escape before their wardens return, or before they starve to death in the prison. While she helps the other superstiti with the escape plans, Felicitas discovers that she has a special gift which allows her to work some of the alien devices in the prison. She also discovers that she can read some of the alien glyphs of their captors, whom they call the "uominilupi" -- beings who look like wolves yet walk like men. She dreams of one of these aliens, Lungo Muso, as she sleeps. He shows her other places and times as she dreams but she has difficulty understanding what it all means.

Felicitas escapes with some of the others just before their captors return. She is taken in by a group of hunters who are the descendants of former escapees. They take her to their town, New Florence, where she meets, Raffaele, a would-be astronomer and another of the people whom Lungo Muso visits. There she discovers the meaning of the visions and what she must do to save not only herself, but all of mankind as well.

Mackay weaves together a fascinating tale. The effort to escape from the prison and the prisoners' explorations of the alien technology are very interesting, as is his vision of a prison run entirely by machines. He does an admirable job of describing the prisoners' efforts to decipher the alien machines and writing, and shows how truly difficult it would be to use technology with little understanding of it. There is some romance mixed into the plot, as well as jealousy. There is a great deal of tension and suspense in the prison as those who are "awake" plot to escape and the "dead" come under the control of special implants and attempt to stop them. There are enough different elements in this story that everyone should find something to interest them.

The story is very complex, though, and I have to admit I had to read Outpost twice to truly appreciate it. But I think the effort was worth it. There are twists to the tale that I didn't catch the first time. Mackay ties up all of the loose ends except for one that deals with a time travel paradox. Rather than trying to explain it, however, it is merely ignored. Not uncommon in a story that deals with time travel. It doesn't detract from the story, though, and in fact, the time travel aspect plays a somewhat minor role in the plot of this book. I recommend Outpost to science fiction lovers who are willing to give a chance to new authors with fresh ideas.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.


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