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James Alan Gardner
Avon EOS Books, 432 pages

James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner's first novel, Expendable, was published in 1997. Commitment Hour followed in 1998. A Canadian Canadian Author author, James Alan Gardner has honed his skills publishing short works in Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, On-Spec, and the Tesseracts anthologies. He has won numerous writing awards, including Grand Prize winner of the Writers of the Future Award (1989) as well as an Aurora Award for best short story (1990). His latest accolade is a 1997 Nebula nomination.

James Alan Gardner Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Vigilant
SF Site Review: Commitment Hour
SF Site Review: Expendable
Excerpt from Commitment Hour
Excerpt from Expendable

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Sometimes I think contemporary SF is missing a sense of freedom of imagination. Reading old 50s books I am struck by the insouciance with which authors threw in concepts like easy FTL, psi powers, weird alien species, super technology, and so on. It's not that you can't find these anymore, but often there is a sense of constraint. We are much stricter about scientific plausibility. But there are still writers who let their imaginations go, while sticking to traditional SF ground. And when a good writer does this, the results can be enormously fun.

James Alan Gardner's new novel, Hunted, is a very fun novel to read. It's set in the same future as his other novels, and a major character is again Festina Ramos of the Explorers, who appeared in Expendable and in Vigilant. Recurrent elements of this future are the League of Peoples, an association of extremely advanced races who enforce just one rule on the many lesser races of the Galaxy (including humans). That rule is that anyone who kills (or intends to kill) another sentient being is killed if they travel out of any solar system. The idea is that wars will thus be restricted to single planets. It's hard to believe in the absolute enforcement of this rule (by mystical means) that we are shown, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief. (The crimes involved in this rule seem to me to be a bit of a moving target, as well.) Perhaps the neatest thing about this setup is that it allows Gardner to play with a whole array of alien races of roughly human intelligence and tech level, while still allowing for races of much greater advancement. Humans themselves are ruled by the Technocracy, controlled by a High Council of Admirals. There are a number of human-colonized planets.

The narrator of Hunted is Edward York, the son of one of the Admirals on the High Council. He and his dead sister Samantha were illegal clones of the Admiral, complete with illegal genetic engineering. Unfortunately, Edward's engineering went wrong, and he's a bit stupid. Due to his handicap, Edward's disappointed father has put him in the low-prestige Explorer Corps. But on Samantha the engineering worked, and she was brilliant. She (with Edward along as bodyguard) was sent to the planet Troyen, occupied by a neat alien species called Mandasars, to try to improve relations between the Mandasars and another species, the Fasskisters. This happened 35 years prior to the action of the story. And 20 years prior to the story, despite Samantha's efforts, war broke out on Troyen. Samantha was killed, along with the High Queen of the Mandasars -- who, we learn, was Edward's "wife," in an apparent diplomatically arranged quasi-marriage. Edward has spent 20 years marooned in the Troyen system: no one can leave, because anyone directly involved in the war is a killer, who will immediately be killed upon leaving the system.

All that is back story, revealed gradually to us. The real story starts with Edward finally rescued from the Troyen system, en route to Celestia, a human colony which accepted millions of Mandasar children as refugees at the start of the war. But as soon as the ship leaves the system, everyone on board is killed, except Edward. He finds a dead Mandasar queen on board, as well as a lot of dangerous nanotech, which seems designed to gather the "venom" produced by the queens, which may have a number of biochemical uses. When Edward reaches Celestia, he finds the navy curiously uninterested in the problem. Threatened with another stint in exile, he escapes (with the help of some fellow Explorers) to the planet's surface. There he finds some of the exiled Mandasar children, now grown, and they treat him with unusual respect.

Here we learn what makes the Mandasars so interesting: they have several "castes," like social insects: a neuter "worker" caste, a male "warrior" caste, and a female "gentle" caste. In addition, some gentles become Queens, and the Queens control all the others by means of pheromones. Thus, Mandasars are, in a sense, natural "monarchists." Edward's status (Royal Consort) apparently makes the Mandasars willing to follow him. They tell him of an ongoing effort by some humans on Celestia to use the Mandasars' social nature against them: when isolated, their individual capacities are exaggerated, such that the "workers" become willing slaves, and the "warriors" become fiercer and less inhibited, and the "gentles" become amoral scientific geniuses.

Edward tries to help the free Mandasars struggle against these "recruiters," and in the process bumps into Festina Ramos, who is also investigating the recruiters. Festina realizes that there must be an Admiral behind all this, and that the real answer to a number of mysteries lies back on Troyen. So Festina, some other Explorers, Edward and his Mandasar family, and an unusual human/alien hybrid all head back to war-torn Troyen, where a whole lot of untangling of threads occurs, in the midst of plenty of well-depicted action, and all is resolved in a very satisfying manner.

It's instructive just to list the ingredients Gardner has thrown into his pot: several neat alien races, nanotechnology, telepathy and some clever uses of it, precognition, a man with a glass stomach, at least two varieties of human/alien hybrid, genetic engineering, some diabolical weapons tech. Mix in plenty of scheming, plenty of action, plenty of colour. The result is a compelling adventure story, and lots of fun for the reader.

The book isn't perfect. You do have to swallow some of the basic implausibilities of the entire series: mainly the League of Peoples' ability to detect and kill "dangerous non-sentients" (and what seem to me to be inconsistent and sometimes changing rules defining "dangerous non-sentients"), as well as the hard-to-believe rationale behind the "expendable" Explorer Corps. In addition, the bad guys are pretty cartoonishly bad. And the ending, while satisfying, has aspects of deus ex machina to it, though those aspects were at least foreshadowed fairly well. (I'd quibble, too, that as psi powers go I hate precognition, but I think that's a personal quirk of mine, and it can't be held against the book.) But these weaknesses didn't stop me from enjoying myself immensely as I gobbled this book down.

Copyright © 2000 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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