Thursday, August 10, 2017

Space Captain Smith, by Toby Frost

Today I'm looking at a book and I'm honestly not sure what my thoughts on it are. Because on the one hand there are some parts that are rather clever, but I feel like it doesn't get quite to the level where I'd find it memorably witty. Like say, Johannes Cabal for example. It's not that there's anything about the book that's obviously bad, but I can't say there was anything that made this stand out to me, as a parody either. And this book is a parody of the more old-fashioned pulp adventures in which ruggedly handsome men give Johnny Foreigner the old one-two, eh wot? Which is normally something I enjoy quite a bit but I think with this book it just didn't quite get to where it needed to be for me.

The book is set in the 25th century when humanity has spread into the galaxy and become one of the more populous races. Human space is divided into a number of competing multi-stellar states, including the Second British Empire. Our main character, Space Captain Isambard Smith, is a fine example of British gentlemanliness with his waxed handlebar mustache, collection of tweed coats, and love for democracy, cricket, and rambling walks in the countryside. In this book, Smith is sent on a mission to confound the machinations of the Ghast Empire, an insectoid alien race that hates all things about humanity, but democracy and the British in particular. In a battered light freighter and a crew consisting entirely of Suruk, a proud warrior race alien and Pollyanna Carveth, a fugitive android, the odds are definitely against Captain Smith.

As I said, this book is very obviously a parody and of a genre which I normally enjoy. The bad guys are transparently cardboard cutouts of bad stage villains to the point it's actually kind of funny but I'm not sure if I like Smith so much either. The thing about Smith is that he reminds me in many ways of the character Arnold Rimmer from the tv series Red Dwarf,  both the petty, regular Arnold Rimmer and the much more likeable, heroic Ace Rimmer. To his credit, Isambard Smith at least has the niceness and derring-do of Ace Rimmer making him more than all talk. But he also comes with the banality, stupidity, and unwarranted sense of smug superiority that regular Rimmer comes with as well. I vividly remember a passage where Smith looks at a mural of humans and aliens existing in harmony and Smith thinking it would be better showing aliens working on a railroad with some British dreadnought spaceships watching over them.

That's really what gets me the most about Smith, his almost typically English sense that he has the correct way of doing things, and the rest of the universe needs to be told how to do things the proper way. Such as how the British Empire is undertaking the noble work of bringing democracy to poor, unenlightened, alien races. Now, considering the human bad guys think aliens should exist solely as a servant underclass and shouldn't be given rights at all, this makes Smith look like a good guy by comparison. But he's still a smug, insufferable imperialist who assumes his way is the only way of doing things. Which honestly put me off of him as a character. I know that's played for laughs but it just rubs me the wrong way.

I did also feel like the book kind of had a little too much going on at once, considering this is a parody rather than a serious, in-depth novel, but I think it all manages to work out in the end. And Frost manages to work some pretty wry jokes into the book. Albeit, a lot of it is, ''Smith is an Englishman and he has to deal with people who don't act English! How wacky!'' But at least it's not completely random.

So, I wouldn't say Space Captain Smith is a bad book. There's plenty of clever jokes and it's not terrible writing, but I can't say it had me laughing quite as hard as some of the other books I've read or listened to. For me, at least, it feels very much like an example of almost but not quite good enough. Maybe other people would like this book better and find it funnier than I did, but I felt like there was just a special something that was missing from this book to make it truly come alive for me.

- Kalpar

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