by Dave Truesdale
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Off On A Tangent: Novel Reviews columns.]
For his first novel, Australian author M.C. Planck has chosen to play with the standard tropes often found in the space-adventure milieu. Prudence Falling captains a tramp freighter among the stars, she and her motley but loyal crew finding work wherever they can. The time is centuries after the ecological collapse of Earth when Man has seeded hundreds of planets in search of resources. It appears that humanity is alone in the universe for no other sentient life has so far been discovered.
The colonized planets are ruled and governed by the "League," and, as with many overseer-type ruling bodies, it is now authoritarian and corrupt. Enter Lt. Kyle Daspar, a police officer from the wealthy planet of Altair Prime, who is an undercover double agent working against the League.
Captain Falling and Lt. Daspar's lives are soon inextricably linked when they meet on the small farming planet Kassa, following the bombing and decimation of the planet by what appears to be an alien attack, to which both have responded to the urgent S.O.S. sent from the survivors.
In short order, while attempting to rescue Kassa's survivors, a crashed alien ship is discovered, which leads to one unanswered question after another, most interested being Lt. Daspar. Playing his role as an officer of the League, he finds difficulty in getting answers when he reports to his superiors about the supposed alien craft, and his paranoia renders him reluctant to believe that Captain Falling is the innocent she purports to be. This delicate balancing act provides needed drama and tension between the two, until, down the road and deciding he has no choice due to plot complications, he trusts her with his secret.
Working together, Falling and Daspar, with their lives on the line and the fate of the League's worlds in the balance, uncover a plot going to the highest level of the League -- to the very top. Revealing specifically what this nefarious plot entails would remove any mystery for those deciding to read the book for themselves. Suffice it to say that clones, a reclusive religious order, and giant metallic spiders are involved.
And of course, in the end, the guy gets the girl, or the girl gets the guy (whichever you'd prefer). Well enough written, at bottom line there is nothing new here, whether it involves characterization, plot, setting, theme, originality, or by whatever benchmarks you judge your fiction. Standard tropes, standard characters, standard/average plot, with nothing out of the ordinary to mark it a cut above the rest. This hearkens back to the adventure SF of the 50s and early 60s, and aside from the updated technology would have fit very nicely as a monthly schedule-filler potboiler Ace paperback the likes of which ruled the roost at that time.
The Kassa Gambit is entertaining enough fare, up to a point and for what it tries to do, and it is best read on a plane or bus trip to kill a few hours. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using tried and true tools from the SF toolbox, but these days the author must strive for a bit more imagination and invention in the use thereof. Too many SF fans these days -- precluding those virgin to the written genre, or who have never watched tv or gone to a movie, if such exist -- have been there, read that, seen that (albeit with minor variation) many times. This would have been a decent paperback purchase in the 50s and will be (it's currently in hardcover) an arguably decent paperback purchase now, more than half a century later.
The author's previous two books in this sequence were Footprints of Thunder (1997) and Thunder of Time (2006). I have read neither, but I found this newest to be a crackerjack read. What's not to love about time travel and dinosaurs, two of the all-time great SFnal playgrounds?
The premise, the backdrop for all three novels is this (attention: rubber science alert): as a result of intensive nuclear fusion testing in the 50s, small, localized, unnoticed time ripples were created. So far no problem. Then, a chance convergence of these smaller time waves created what came to be known as the Time Quilt. This massive event displaced large areas of the present into the Cretaceous period -- 65 million years ago -- and sent equal areas of this past into our present, dinosaurs and all. Dinosaur Thunder takes place 18 years following the initial events set down in Footprints of Thunder and 10 years following the events in Thunder of Time (where an ecoterrorist plot to shred space-time and return Earth to its original state is thwarted, but not without consequences). The Preface gets the reader up to speed quickly and painlessly, clueing one in to such plot points as "orgonic" energy, that energy discovered and harnessed (as best they could manage) by ancient Egyptians to preserve their pharaohs, and which led to the design of the pyramids which focused said energy; and how the government, with the discovery of a high-tech material used to line a specially built pyramid in Alaska, attempted to harness this orgonic energy and control the time flow, and more. Of course, it's all fabricated hokum, but just crazy enough to be fun hokum. (I've read flimsier, more outrageous scientific hand-waving in many an SF romp, from one set of early books in particular, by none other than the legendary editor of Astounding SF, John W. Campbell, Jr. when he attempted to explain FTL in his 1930 novel Islands of Space, one of his famous Arcot, Wade, and Morey super-science space operas, reprinted as an Ace paperback in 1966.)
In Dinosaur Thunder we learn that humanity has for the most part rebuilt its cities (at least those that haven't disappeared totally into the past), repaired its communications networks and infrastructure, and is on a more or less even footing. Some countries chose to hunt and kill the dinosaurs, some have died off due to the unfavorable climate to which they were not accustomed, while the United States has decided to round them up and place them in preserves as tourist attractions. The predators, the carnivores, are subdermally tagged and are strictly monitored. No untagged carnivores have been reported... until now. When the occasional herbivorous dino is seen wandering the land it is most often escaped from its registered owner, or a preserve. In such cases a new company called Dinosaur Wranglers is called, and for a fee the dino is captured and returned. A nice gig and a growing home business for owner Carson Wills, until he is called to wrangle what rich home owners, the Mills, swear are velociraptors in their barn.
Untagged velociraptors raise alarms in the government agencies created to oversee such things. As an intense investigation ensues, the dangerous situation unfolds in directions no one thought possible, as not only are there untagged velociraptors ranging wild on Earth, but a T-Rex is discovered on the moon, trapped alive in a space-time bubble. How? Why? What is the connection? And why and how are people disappearing into a stretch of blackness in the barn where the original wild velociraptors were found? Where have they gone and why haven't they returned?
And all this takes place in just the first few chapters in what author James F. David deftly ramps up with skill and panache. We follow several groups of people in alternating chapters, some recently missing from the present and finding themselves in the Cretaceous, a dwindling band of people led by a religious fanatic who were transported to the Cretaceous when Portland, OR was swallowed into the past years ago and who have no idea what has happened to them, the teams of scientists on Earth following the mystery and trying to make sense of it, and a number of concerned women who risk everything by purposely going into the past to find their men. And this barely scratches the surface in this wild, intense ride, for David knows how to build excitement, create life and death situations where the reader can only guess who might live or die (yes, of course, in a dinosaur action story people and animals get chomped, but good) and along the way tosses in one surprise after another. One major surprise I didn't see coming but thought wondrous I just can't bring myself to reveal here, for it would ruin it for everyone else. Even a hint would give it away for the erudite SF fan. There is another ingenious surprise at the very end of the book however, concerning a pair of characters we have come to know and for whom we feel great empathy, so I cautiously offer this hint: it is a twist on one of the late Bob Shaw's most famous stories (a 1967 Hugo nominee), and a great closing touch by the author.
Dinosaur Thunder is an intelligent, well-executed action thriller focused on people we come to know and feel for. It is accentuated with clever little twists and turns to keep readers on their toes, and is liberally sprinkled with bravery, difficult ethical decisions, and self-sacrifice. Kudos to James F. David for reinvigorating his material.
I've still got so much of the kid in me you see, that all I can say is, " What's not to love about time travel and dinosaurs?" Dinosaur Thunder is a winner for all ages and I unreservedly recommend it.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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