Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review - Second Skin by Peter Darrach

Short review: Max Cody gets gifted with super powers by mysterious aliens just in time to stop the ice pirates' nefarious plot against Mars.

A strange accident
Gives Max some super powers
So he foils villains

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance 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: Second Skin aspires to be a hard science fiction story with a twist. To a certain extent the book evokes memories of Heinlein or Asimov, with a hyper-competent manly hero, a beautiful but dazzlingly brilliant love interest, emerging technology that poses new problems, an unsettled interplanetary political scene, and a villainous conspiracy that threatens everything. Although the book holds promise, it is hampered by some fairly clumsy information dumps, overly serendipitous plot developments, and characters that alternate between being incompetent dimwits and infallible super-geniuses.

The story is set in a moderately near future reality in which mankind has colonized Mars and begun to mine the asteroid belt. We learn early in the book that Mars has recently won independence from the Earth, although there is still political tension between the two planets. But the method by which Darrach fills the reader in on the current political situation is by having a character respond to the question "fill us in on current political events" by giving an extended history lesson. If this feels artificial, that is because it is. The equivalent in piece of a contemporary fiction would be to have a character give a detailed history of the U.S. Revolutionary War in response to the question "How is the U.S. getting along with Europe these days". Sadly, this is just the first time Darrach interrupts the flow of the story to dump a bucket of information over the reader's head like cold water. One key skill that a science fiction writer has to have is the ability to artfully convey the differences between the fictional world they are describing and the world in which we live. The best science fiction writers are able to do this as a seamless part of their story. But many writers, including Darrach, see their story grind to a screeching halt every time they try to impart such information to the reader.

In an action oriented story like Second Skin, this sort of interruption is problematic, as it pulls the reader out of the adventure, forcing them to sit through a miniature lecture instead. And this is a shame, because the adventure featuring deep space miner Max Cody and his navigator girlfriend Elaine Zhou that forms the core of the story is fairly interesting. As the story opens, Max runs across some trouble while mining in the asteroid belt, and soon discovers that he has acquired mysterious capabilities that allow him to overcome near certain death. His story intertwines with the story of space pirate Suicide Sam, who is pursuing some unknown goal inimical to the nascent Martian Republic. The story hops between Max, Elaine, Sam, and Daniel Sinclair, the director of the industrial space platform "MOSA" in orbit around Mars, skipping back and forth between the disparate threads of the story.

Although the story starts with Max and Elaine in the asteroid belt, they quickly move to MOSA, an installation that is the key to Martian wealth, and the focus of much of the action that occurs in the book. It turns out that the fledgling Martian space navy is interested in Max and Elaine as possible recruits, having taken notice when the two managed to recover a stolen cruiser from Suicide Sam. Once there, our heroes are drawn into the complex web of intrigue that surrounds both MOSA and its soon to be activated sister installation MOSA II. Max and Elaine are improbably taken into the confidence of those in power, both in the navy and in the government arm that administers MOSA and provides its security. But at the same time, despite the fact that the security apparatus knows who has been working with the asteroid belt pirates as their inside man, they are incompetent enough that they are caught flat-footed when their villainous plan is put into effect, and are only saved by the unexpected heroics of Max, and he is only able to provide those heroics because he obtained inexplicable super powers at the beginning of the book. And this is where Darrach most clearly leaves his literary antecedents behind – whereas a Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven-penned science fiction hero would have figured out a way to foil the villains' plans with some quick thinking and a well thought-out counterattack, Max simply relies upon his superhuman abilities to do the work. One ends up wondering what would have happened if the apparently almost randomly bestowed abilities Max is gifted with were to have been handed to Suicide Sam, or to someone who didn't bother to go to MOSA instead of continuing his job of rock-jockeying.

The political machinations that make up the bulk of the book are clearly a sideshow to the story that Darrach actually wanted to tell involving a new form of transportation technology. And this is the string that ties all of the various plot elements together into a whole. But the problem is that even though these various plot threads all dovetail together fairly nicely at the end, for most of the book the reader is left wondering what the disparate events being described have to do with one another. And as a result, the reader has to fight through much of the book unable to put the pieces together until after they have read most of it, a situation that makes the book at times confusing, at others tedious, and sometimes both. If the story that the book added up to was uninteresting or badly written, this would be of no concern. But Second Skin is neither uninteresting nor badly written, and once all the pieces are fit together and the story gets going, it turns into an exciting and enjoyable romp. But as good as the last third of the book is, the reader is left wondering why the first two-thirds simply don't measure up.

Overall, Second Skin is a book worth reading despite the fact that it takes time to come together. The central characters are well drawn, and the central conflict, once it gets going, is engaging. Couple these elements with an intriguing story about technological advancement, and the whole adds up to a pretty good book. Given that the background is more or less fleshed out in this book, one can have reasonable cause to hope that the sequel, Second Skin, Too, will avoid the missteps in this volume and stand out as a superior piece of work.

Subsequent book in the series: Second Skin, Too

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