So far in my reviews of free fiction, I’ve tended to focus more on the rather nebulous category of “literary fiction” (whatever that may be) rather than more well-defined genres like science fiction. Heather Douglass, however, is an author with a foot in both camps. I am indebted to Bernard Fancher for pointing me in her direction, as she had published several shorter pieces in the “literary” category of Smashwords, one of which he had reviewed. These are well worth a read – I particularly enjoyed “Dehydration” and “Red Hotel on the Strand.” And it’s hard not to warm to an author whose biography on Smashwords reads: “Oh, here's the embarrassing thing. Not anticipating this biography, I have failed to fill my life with any exciting material. I'm hoping there's still time for improvement.”
But I digress, because this review is supposed to be about “Shen,” an engagingly offbeat science fiction novel which the author describes (slightly tongue-in-cheek) as “space opera for the unprepared” and “a mythic space fantasy where the number one mission of the crew is to discover whether they have one”. Though accurate, these descriptions may perhaps give the impression that we’re in “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” territory – when in fact the author’s intentions are a bit more serious than that (unless I am the hapless victim of a 97,500 word joke – which is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility).
The novel starts out on earth, with the novel’s anti-hero, David, cheating on his wife, then popping out for a curry only to find himself on board a spaceship. The only other inhabitant of the ship is the mono-browed alien Brahm, who seems as bewildered as David by all these goings-on. They are soon joined by others, including Cha Cha, a spirited and engaging Chinese girl. David, meanwhile, is thoroughly unpleasant to everyone, but somehow the author manages to make a rather compelling spectacle of his restless, antisocial behaviour. For me, these two protagonists were a particular strength of the novel (and helped to differentiate it from your average sci-fi novel, where character development is often somewhat neglected).
The bizarreness of their predicament is offset in this first part of the novel by the way the action regularly switches back to normal life on Earth and the reactions of David and Cha Cha’s family and friends to their disappearances (and occasional reappearances). This contrast worked very well because it gave the novel a foundation in our own world, whilst gradually putting the pieces in place for the action to shift to another planet entirely in Part 2. It may also mean that readers who aren’t particularly interested in science fiction would still get something out of this book, because many sections of the first part aren’t really science fiction at all – they are more concerned with developing the characters of David and Cha Cha and depicting how people react when those close to them suddenly vanish.
In Part 2, the ship and its rather motley “crew” head off to another planet and we are introduced not just to a range of new characters but to an entirely new world (although one that has enough similarities to our own not to seem too alien). As such, Part 2 is more of a conventional sci-fi/fantasy story than Part 1. However, it is still quite ambitious in its attempt to depict the interplay between different racial/cultural/religious groups; it reminded me in many respects of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series and the late Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels.
As for what the novel is about, I think the author is mainly interested in using science fiction as a vehicle to ask big existential questions like “Why are we here? What’s the point of it all?” - hence her reference to the crew’s number one mission being to discover whether they have one. She is also very interested in the power of ideas to shape the way that people behave.
The main criticism I have of the book is that by the time the focus finally shifted away from Earth, I found that I rather missed the regular “return trips” back to Earth that are a key feature of Part 1 – and I didn’t find Part 2 quite as compelling. But perhaps my feelings about Part 2 are more a reflection of how much I enjoyed Part 1 – so I don’t want to overemphasise this point. There is certainly no shortage of plot development or interesting ideas in Part 2 – all of which helped to keep my interest to the end (and yes, if there is a sequel, I will read it – although I am hoping the author will take us back to Earth at some point).
At the time of this review, “Shen” was available free of charge from Smashwords. Heather Douglass’s other work (also all free and well worth a read) can be accessed here. Finally, she has a nice line in short, pithy blog entries – adjectives which can’t, alas, be ascribed to most of the blog postings here on “Publishing Waste.”
Posted by Paul Samael. Posted In : Book reviews