Thursday, November 8, 2007

Review: Hal Spacejock

I finished this book about a week and a half ago, but since that was in the midst of my move from Pensacola, FL to the Jackson, MS area, I lacked the time to get this review written and posted. Then, there were all the fun issues I had with Comcast and just the joys of living in general that have tried their best to keep me from writing this. In the end, I have overcome all my troubles... or at least enough of them that I can sneak a good hour or six needed for fleshing out my notes into an actual review.

Anyways, we're here today to discuss Simon Hayne's debut novel, Hal Spacejock (ISBN: 192073189X). It was published back in 2005, but that was in Australia, as Mr. Haynes has yet to acquire a U.S. distributor for his work, much to my annoyance, because for some odd reason, books are extremely expensive on the online bookshop for Australia that I found. In fact, it lists this novel (in paperback form) at $16.45 (sale price, down from $19.95). Now that's Australian dollars, and I'm not quite certain of the going exchange rate, but a quick search on the 'Net found me the site, which has a nice conversion tool, that tells us that A$16.45 is US$15.03 (on Nov, 2 2007). $15.03 is a bit over twice what I'd normally pay for a paperback. Yet don't think that this is something specific to this novel, as all the novels on that site are priced in a similar range. In fact Star Wars: Agent of Chaos I: Hero's Trial is on sale there for the same price, and has the same regular price as well. That is a novel that has a US$6.99 price tag on its back cover.

Well, all that money stuff aside, let's start looking at the book. This is the back-cover blurb for the novel:

An incompetent, accident-prone pilot is given one last chance to save his ship. An ageing [sic] robot is trusted with a midnight landing in a deserted field. And a desperate businessman is prepared to sacrifice both of them to get what he wants...

Combining relentless action with non-stop laughs, Hal Spacejock explodes onto the science fiction scene with the subtlety of a meteor strike and the hushed reverence of a used car salesman.
I'm not sure if this blurb would have been strong enough to get me to buy this book. Of course, that could be a failing on my part as I tend to not read comedy books. I mean, I was 30 before I ever bothered to pick up The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Personal preferences aside, there's nothing inherently wrong with this blurb. It gives a quick, concise look at the plot, and in no uncertain terms tells us that this is a comedic book, which are the two most important bits of information one needs when buying such a novel. So, in the end, I have to say that this blurb works.

Amusingly enough, between the time I started writing this review and the time I posted it, Mr. Haynes wrote a blog entry dealing with blurbs. I know that I am unusually harsh in dealing with blurbs and what I define as a good one or bad one, and in fact am one of the few reviewers out there that takes the time to even bother with the things. Yet to me they are an intrinsic part of the book experience, as they are the first taste of the novel, and quite often a deciding factor on whether or not I'll pick up a book. All that said, I'm ecstatic at seeing a bit of the author's POV in this regard.

Meanwhile, the Australian Online Bookshop has this as a plot synopsis:
Described as one of the most memorable figures in sci-fi, Hal Spacejock explodes onto the science fiction scene with the subtlety of a meteor strike and the hushed reverence of a used car salesman.

A perennial loser, Hal borrowed heavily to fund his intergalactic cargo business. His loyal customers evaporated after several highly publicised [sic] mishaps, and mounting bills have confined him to planet Lamira, a mining colony with the vibrant, up-and-coming economy of a rubbish tip.

As the book opens, the finance company is despatching [sic] heavies to all points of the compass, desperate to track Hal down and extract money and/or vital organs. Meanwhile, on a nearby planet, a wealthy businessman needs a freelance cargo pilot for a suicidal cargo mission. Ideally, he wants a desperate, debt-ridden loser…
Looking it over, that's a good take on the various plots that are found within this novel. Their are a couple plot lines running through things, held together by the overarching thread of Hal trying to make a shipment. There's not a whole lot to say on the plot, because it's really there merely as a construct in order to hold up the character's character arcs and as a foil in which to hide the theme. Is it bad? No! Quite the contrary, the action and execution of the plot-lines are well done and quite concise; everything from the debt collector to the gambling addict back to Hal and his relationship with his ship, Clunk and his various clients.

Hal Spacejock is a hapless space pilot who has stumbled into something of a run of bad luck mixed with bad decisions. Yet despite all that, you can't help but like the guy. Sadly, I don't think he actually learns anything through the course of the novel. Yet for all the incompetence inherent in his character, he has a nobility which shines through, at least when he's not destroying things.

Clunk is the aging robot described on the blurb, and is a much more sympathetic (not to mention competent) character than Hal. Additionally, the majority of robots featured in this novel seem to be what we want humans to be. Most are kind and loyal and honest. It's a startlingly concise tool to use to shine on just how often humans fail to live up to that particular goal. Anyways, Clunk here is the straight man for Hal, basically Clunk = Abbott while Hal = Costello (or since this is a SF based blog should I use "Pinky and the Brain" or "Piro and Largo" to describe them?).

The third character in our triumvirate of heroes is the Black Gull itself. Or more accurately, its self-aware navcom system. When necessary, the navcom plays the part of the straight man to both Clunk and Hal. I was amused by the ship's antics, as it openly mocked Hal at every chance.

There are what could be considered two villains here. The first is Vurdi Makalukar, while the second is Farrell Hinchfig. Vurdi is a debt collector, of the loan-shark variety, while Hinchfig is younger brother to the person that runs a large conglomerate. While neither is very openly evil, both are willing to do just whatever they wish to fulfill their goals. Even if that means someone has to be hurt, or die, along the way.

There are a few secondary characters that push along the plotlines but don't really get to do a whole lot in the story. People such as Hinchfig's older brother or Jerling, the businessman who hires Hal.

Interesting enough, out of all the characters in this book, I seemed to like the Black Gull's navcom the most. I think that might be because out of the three hero-type characters, it is the smartest, and most smart-mouthed of them. What can I say, I'm a sucker for sarcasm.

Settings in this novel are wonderfully described. Mr. Haynes details the spaceships, the planets and even the characters in stellar terms. That said, he didn't go overboard in the descriptions. A gun was a gun. A car was a car, not a XY55-a HoverCar with a 885 HSI Induction Engine made by BigTelCo. Basically, he provided enough clues that my imagination could flesh out the rest. Which is, in my opinion at least, the perfect balance in settings and descriptions.

Themes are interesting things. Sometimes when I read a novel, they jump out at me, and I'll see a theme sitting there ready and willing to be consumed. Other times no matter how hard I search, I can't find it. Happily, this particular book sits midway between those two extremes. The theme that I ultimately found is a satirist's look at how our culture will extend out in the future. Everything from verbal "pop-up" ads to get into your house to arcane EULA on hardware/software products that you don't get to see until it is to late to return the product. Of course the amusement from the satire is solely because one can see the future going this way. It shows a grim understanding of both current culture in regards to software and how we interact with in on our PCs and the Internet, as well as an even grimmer understanding that companies will try to utilize such things whenever possible.

When I received this novel, I wasn't aware of the costs that it would have as price points on various websites. I had a vague idea about the increased cost of books in Australia, but I wasn't aware just how much more the things were down there. That said, I was intrigued with the manufacturing. The price increase means that it was made with a slightly higher quality paper, but the cover was just plain odd. First the cardstock used in it, was just barely heavier than the paper, and there was a fold about a quarter inch from the book's edge. This wasn't noticeable while reading the book, but plainly obvious on the title page, where the title ran right against the fold. then the binding was not quite what I was used to. American mass-market paperbacks are usually built in signatures, which are glued to the binding. This one almost appeared to be single leaves instead. Finally, in this section I usually discuss spelling and grammar errors, but they're going to be skip over this time because of the differences between American English and Australian English.

Overall I liked this novel. Hal amused me as a protagonist, and the situations he stumbled through amused me even more. Then when he was coupled with Clunk, it had the makings of a classic comedic duo. In fact, I can remember quite a few times I laughed aloud at something that had happened. Much to my own embarrassment because I was reading in the bathroom at the time, which meant my wife could then ask, "What's so funny in there?"

My own embarrassment aside, this is a fun book that I enjoyed reading, and I have to highly recommend it. Additionally, I can't wait for one of the U.S. publishing houses to pick it up for distribution here in the States, mainly because I want to read the next book in the series.

In the end, I have to give it a 3.7 out of 4.

It was going to get a 3.5, but while looking for a name, I stumbled over this snippet of text, and as a programmer, just had to laugh once again and up the score...
Carina nodded. "He's got a brilliant programmer and a room full of computers. We should have the same."

"Forget it. They're temperamental, highly strung and they keep breaking down." Jerling blew out a cloud of smoke. "I'm not wasting money on computers either."

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