Published by Tor
ISBN 0-7653-1920 -9
Space Pirates vs. Space Zombies – This is just one way to give a brief snapshot of what to expect in Tobias Buckell’s latest space opera, Sly Mongoose. This rip-roaring novel is the third in a sequence of novels beginning with Crystal Rain, continuing in Ragamuffin, as well as some of Buckell’s short fiction and matches up as well with the previous entries.
In this volume, Buckell introduces readers to Chilo, a strange planet that upon first imagery is reminiscent of the Jetsons or Bespin from Star Wars– cities floating in the clouds 100,000 feet above a dangerous surface. The point character for the early sections of the novel, Timas, is a scavenger. Despite the negative connotation of the title, it isn’t an uncommon role for a young man of Timas’s age to hold – he is lowered to the surface in the hopes that he’ll find what he can in order to make a living for him and his family.
But before we can get to Timas, a character familiar to readers of Buckell’s fiction literally crashes through the atmosphere of Chilo. This of course would be Pepper, the Sly Mongoose from which this book takes its title. A Mongoose man is a futuristic super solder, think Captain America + Starship Troopers and you might start to form a picture of what kind of man Pepper is, and how dangerous he can be. Although Pepper is missing a limb or two, he is still an imposing physical threat as well as a holder of a wealth of knowledge. Pepper’s age can be counted in triple digits and he’s been fighting the Satraps, the overlords who rule the galaxy, for many of those years. Pepper’s arrival has a profound effect on the world of Chilo up-heaving much of the society’s ideals and thoughts. Indeed, one of the greater themes of Sly Mongoose is the complete upheaval of a worldview, both on an individual level and a global level.
Pepper arrives on Chilo with some controversy, to say the least – he’s responsible for destroying the space vessel on which he was aboard and killing its crew. What seems a horrible act of violence, initially, turns out to be something else. What Pepper was escaping, and in turn winds up following him to Chilo, is the equivalent of a virus that turns people into mindless drones that are part of a collective intelligence known as the Swarm. This is a nice twist on the Zombie story and also plays to the roots of the Zombie motif in some ways, since many of the myths surrounding Zombies go back to myths of Vodou in the Caribbean. The Swarm Zombies are also lent a bit of scientific credence here with the spreading virus.
Over the course of three novels, Buckell has revealed a galaxy with rich backdrop, one whose cultures truly standout from much of his contemporaries. The Caribbean flavored galaxy, mixed with some Mexican cultures provides a very unique extrapolation of today’s world onto a grand scale.
On parallel to that galaxy-wide depth, Buckell is slowly, and tantalizingly, revealing the character of Pepper. A larger than life hero with guts, determination, and an enigmatic flair is coming to be a modern standout amongst Science Fiction characters on par with Matt Stover’s Caine, John Scalzi’s John Perry, and Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander.
Sly Mongoose also shows Buckell’s growth as a writer; the story here seems more tightly plotted than his earlier work. Not that the earlier novels weren’t, but it’s just when a writer starts out doing something very well, it’ nice to see it get even better. Buckell notes in the afterward the scientific elements that powered the idea of Chilo, which brings this novel into a more plausible light. Sly Mongoose, if not just a very good Science Fiction novel, very easily borders on great – it’s got a footing in scientific research, great extrapolation of where our world and society could go, excellent world-building, and top notch characters. It’s the kind of Science Fiction novel that mixes familiar elements with not so familiar elements to really push one’s thoughts; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Buckell garner another Nebula Award nomination for another terrific novel.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford