I have reviewed several of Eric Brown’s recent Science Fiction novels for SFCrowsnest over the last two years. All of them were published by Solaris and I enjoyed each one. ‘The Devil’s Nebula’ is his first for Solaris’ sister imprint Abaddon Books and starts a new shared universe series set in ‘Weird Space’. Can this new venture recreate the Solaris magic?
The novel follows the fortunes of spaceship Captain Ed Carew and his crew, pilot Lania Takiomar and engineer Jed Neffard. They make their living running cargo around the thousands of worlds of the Human Expansion. Some of their cargoes are legal, others less so. When we meet them they are on Hesperides, formerly a human colony planet but abandoned some decades before when humanity’s main foe, the tall but intensely ugly Vetch, attacked it for being too close to the segment of the galaxy that they have claimed for themselves.
Ed and his crew are nominally there to steal a valuable artefact from Hesperides’ main museum. Unknown to the others, though, Ed has another mission planned, too. An alien spacecraft of unknown origin crash-landed on Hesperides a century earlier and Ed wants to search the wreckage for clues to the aliens’ identity or home planet. Although Ed gets his wish, he and his crew are arrested by Expansion security soon afterwards, their ship is blown up and they are sentenced to death for their many alleged crimes.
They are then presented with a one-time offer. If they help an Expansion security team fly across Vetch space to the Devil’s Nebula on the far side, to find out what happened to a colony ship full of religious dissidents which left the Expansion many decades earlier and whose distress signal has just been received, their smuggling and other crimes will be forgiven and forgotten. Since the alternative is a bullet in the back of the head, it doesn’t take them long to agree.
The journey across Vetch space passes off peacefully enough, mainly because the spacecraft they’ve been loaned for the duration of this mission is the fastest one in the Expansion fleet. It is when they arrive at the colonists’ ship that things start to get complicated. The colony ship crashed on an airless moon yet there’s no sign of the colonists. They are eventually located down on the moon’s parent planet but it’s unclear how they got there. When Ed and the others finally meet the colonists’ descendants, they are shocked to find that their culture has descended in a matter of mere decades from a spacefaring one to a primitive hunter-gatherer existence, at the heart of which is a strange symbiosis with a huge alien creature known as the ‘Harvester’.
When Ed makes friends with one of the colony’s children, he finds out that the Harvester is just one phase in the life cycle of this alien species, known to the colonists as The Weird because that’s what their name sounds like in English. What soon becomes obvious to Ed is that the colonists are being kept under control by the Weird through the use of drugs secreted by the Harvester into the whey-like material it produces which forms the colonists’ staple foodstuff. He can’t, though, work out what’s in it for the Weird. When he eventually finds out, he’s horrified to realise that the Weird are not just a threat to the colonists on this planet, but to the whole of the human Expansion. Unfortunately for him, the Weird soon realise that Ed is onto them and order the colonists to kill him and his crew. Will Ed escape? Can he save his crew? Will they be able to get away and warn the Expansion?
Shared universe stories are a fascinating concept. I love seeing how they initially start off and how different authors change and expand the base material they’ve been given. Eric Brown has been given the opportunity to set up Weird Space and I think he has produced a great setting that’s full of potential. Ed and his crew are constantly on the wrong side of the law because much of the Expansion looks like a fascist state. All humans are taught from an early age to hate the ugly warlike Vetch, yet when Ed comes face to face with one it turns out to have at least as strong a moral code as he does. An uneasy peace currently exists between humanity and the Vetch but there are players on both sides who would like less of the ‘jaw jaw’ and more of the ‘war war’. However, as the threat from the Weird becomes clear, Ed realises that beating them is likely to require humans and Vetch to become allies rather than enemies. Brown has given future writers of this series a whole host of interesting issues with which to grapple.
This strength of the book is also its main weakness. In spending so much of his time setting up the universe and the main axes of conflict, Brown is left with precious little time to develop the individual characters. Ed Carew is a hero with bags of potential yet, by the end of the book, I still didn’t really feel that I knew him. His pilot, Lania, is a highly talented woman who often provides an excellent foil to Ed. However, she also spends far too much of the book feeling tearful or excessively introspective, leaving the reader unsure who the real Lania is. Although I recognise that real people can present wildly different facets of their characters at different times, I’m not sure it’s helpful for the lead characters in a plot-driven novel to do the same as it risks confusing the reader. These are by no means fatal flaws but I would have welcomed more depth and consistency in the main characters. I think this would have helped to bring the emotional impact of the storyline, which includes moments of great excitement and high tragedy, closer to the reader.
‘The Devil’s Nebula’ is a fast-paced and enjoyable introduction to a new shared story universe that Eric Brown has filled with lots of potential. I look forward to seeing what he and his fellow authors do with it next.