Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review - Mariner Valley by James Crawford

Short review: A villainous gang of ruffians goes on the run, so the police round up a posse and chase after them. It turns out that Mars is a lot like the Old West.

A reluctant cop,
A desperate gang of crooks,
A desert showdown

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: With the vast amount of love that is heaped upon the short-lived television series Firefly, it seems inevitable that western themed science fiction would surge in popularity. featuring a big city cop moved to the frontier, an Indian tracker, a hot-headed young gun, and an armed gang of villainous criminals on the run, Mariner Valley is an almost self-consciously self-aware entry into this field.

Ben O'Ryan is a cop working at the U.S. settlement on Chryse. But as the novel opens, it is his last day on the job. He's packing up his office, saying his last goodbyes to his coworkers and friends, and generally adamantly insisting that he will be on the ship back to Earth when it leaves. And, of course, this means that he will get sucked into the pursuit of murderer and generally all-around bad guy Troy Lansing. Ben heading up the resulting posse is predictable because Mariner Valley is a by-the-numbers Western that just happens to be set on Mars.   Ben is on Mars to escape from his past as a police officer in Los Angeles, Jamie is his dependable Indian tracker, Beth is Ben's close platonic friend who might develop into more, and so on. Every character, from the well-meaning drug addict to the hot-headed violence junkie, is drawn straight from the cast of a John Wayne movie.

But even though the novel is loaded with cliche's, they give the book a kind of comforting feel, like an old friend who has stopped by for a visit or a pair of well-worn blue jeans that fit perfectly. After being cajoled into not leaving Mars right away, Ben gathers his posse of stock characters and heads off into the inhospitable Martian landscape under the harsh winds of a sandstorm. By placing the story under the obscuring maelstrom of a Martian sandstorm, Crawford is able to keep the Western motif intact, as many of the technological developments that have transpired between the last half of the nineteenth century and the fictional future envisioned for the book are rendered ineffective, leaving Ben and his crew stuck driving after Troy and his gang without the benefit of aerial support and other similar assistance that would have made the Western posse chase story less tenable.

So the story trundles along. The bad guys head for the border - the Russian border filling in for the Mexican border in this version - although one has to wonder if the Russian territory would have been a safe haven for Troy and his gang given the assistance lent to Ben's crew by the Russians near the close of the book. In any event, the villains wander across Mars trying to lose their pursuers, but still manage to leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. In the meantime, Ben's posse managed to overcome a broken down horse, or rather, a broken down rover, a horse that goes lame in the form of a rover that has developed a leak, a stay at a frontier town complete with the requisite bar fight, and eventually track their quarry down for a final showdown. Each step along the way to the resolution of the story is familiar, but well-executed and enjoyable nonetheless.

The Western as science fiction is a subgenre that works well. And although it is a very standard take on the "posse" story, Mariner Valley is a good example of the subgenre. Full of easily recognizable, but nicely written characters, and with a fun and action filled story, this book is a fun read, and is sure to be well-liked by anyone who, like me, wishes there were more Firefly episodes.

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  1. Actually sounds like a lot of fun - sort of a cautionary tale for Cowboys and Aliens - a movie with so much potential that went so very wrong.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Mariner Valley is pretty good, and holds together well. It seems that Crawford intends to write more books featuring Ben O'Ryan, and I worry a bit that he may try to press the "Mars-based Western" motif too far. Keeping everyone under a sandstorm worked to make the chase more "Western-ish" but you can't keep doing that and have it keep working.