by Dominic Green
339 pages, Fingerpress
Review by S.F. Winser
Booksquawk Disclosure: This was a free review copy.
Smallworld, or THE small world is a tiny planetoid named Mt Ararat. It is, essentially, two big asteroids, imperfectly smashed together into a kind of rocky snowman, fused together by a core of heavy metal and orbiting in the rings of a gas giant in another solar system. It is an odd and cool little place, seemingly built of pure improbability. It's big enough for one of the globes to hold a large farm, a lake, a small town and not much else. And the other globe, inhabited mostly by corpses, has stories all its own.
Mt Ararat is home to the Reborn-In-Jesus clan. A family made up of the very few surviving members of a psuedo-Christian utopian society that, a few years ago, failed at being utopian, Christian or even a society once most of the people who were to populate this society died due to devil-attack (yes, they were attacked and killed by a mechanical devil). The survivors include only two living adults (Mr and Mrs Reborn-In-Jesus) and a herd of their children both biological and adopted. The book is a story of their adventures and the secrets that even a tiny speck of a planet, in the middle of nowhere, in a sea of galaxies can contain.
The approach Green takes to his story – or, more honestly, to this set of interlinked stories – is attractively odd. This is far from hard Sci-Fi... but Green has jammed some rather nice hard SF concepts in – along with some decidedly soft SF ones, too. (A faster than light ship is technically also a time machine, he says a few times. True. But that doesn't mean that I can use a FTL drive to change localised time. A plane is technically a car with wings but that doesn't mean I can drive it through the Chunnel. Usually the reader lets him get away with these little things for the sake of the story) It's not quite a comedy... but it's sometimes as funny as hell. It's not quite an action-adventure... but there's violence and gun-slinging aplenty. I admit it took me quite some time to get into the book, partly because of this approach, partly because the narrative structure is more that of consecutive short-stories rather than the whole, narrative arc I'd been expecting. But once I was in I was hooked. There are intrigues and cool ideas and funny lines and more exploding space cruisers than one tiny planetoid of religious farmers should ever see. Green is writing whatever feels like weird fun, screw you if you don't like it, go read something else. I love that he does this. This is why people should read stuff from indie publishers: you get the novel stylistic approaches and out-of-the-ordinary ideas that aren't straightforward or easily marketable.
There are some great characters – “Uncle” Anchorite is the stand-out – the secretive hermit with reserves of cunning so deep he probably stole other people's cunning in order to become more cunning. (Also, I like repeating the word cunning until it loses all meaning and starts sounding rude.) He's not all he seems and his link to the homicidal devil that wiped out most of the colonists is the least of his secrets. The tribe of similarly-named children are tougher to get a handle upon, and sometimes blended together for me in ways that weren't conducive to a pleasant read, but a few of them do eventually stand out. The escape artist and criminal von Trapp is another semi-lovable rogue and nice construction. Both of these scampish good-guys/bad-guys tended to just the right side of nastiness to still keep some reader sympathy.
One thing I really liked about the book was the sense of a greater universe. Politics change, history has happened and all of it impacts on even this tiny little worldlet. There is only one scene that happens on another planet, but we still get the feeling that Mt Ararat is just one other world out of millions. There are fleets of ships out there... somewhere... all with their own goals. Political parties, enemy robot armies, government departments, manufacturing concerns all exist out there and feel like they are all interacting with each other in ways that never effect Mt Ararat, but still go on. It's amazing the way Green has managed to make this impossibly busy outworld still feel tiny not just physically, but within the greater socio-economical/political/historical universe. There may be many, many unexpected visitors and pirates and prisoners and traders and itinerant re-education officers and mining corporations... far more than a tiny chunk of rock should ever expect to see. But this never seems to impact on the feeling that Mt Ararat is remote and physically-tiny and politically insignificant.
This isn't perfect by any means. As I said, some of the characters are too indistinctly drawn. Not all of the little narrative threads that link some of the stories are completed by the end of the book, leading to some dissatisfaction lingering (What's the plan for the psychic psycho locked in the dungeon!?) and the episodic approach is not exactly to my personal taste. But what Smallworld is, is the work of a talented writer having lots of very smart fun.