Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

1984: The Pandora Stone (Greenleaf, William)

Linear plot of vying for an alien artifact (4/5)

William Greenleaf was a minor science fiction writer in the 1980s, beginning with a single publication of his freshman novel Time Jumper (1980) and later with more single publications of his novels The Tartarus Incident (1983), The Pandora Stone (1984), Starjacked (1987), and Clarion (1988)... three of which were published with Ace. Enjoying a revival of sorts, Greenleaf has been making his novels more accessible with some digital versions now available. If Tartarus and Pandora are a testament to his creativity and cleverness, then the rest of his works are to be hunted down in paperback format and enjoyed.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Arlo Field didn't match the holo-vid image of a contract courier--he was short, scrawny and homely, and he suffered from recurring nightmares about his one encounter with the alien cobra, an encounter is which his lover was killed. But Arlo was good at his job--so good that when UNSA needed someone to acquire and transport a mysterious alien crystal to headquarters on Sierra, Arlo got the assignment. Unfortunately, nobody told him that the five more ruthless criminals in the human k-stream loop also wanted the crystal. And would stop at nothing to get it."

A genuine alien artifact which was stashed away by a noble, well-intended scientist has gradually come to surface on the black market. The artifact, a crystal the size of a large man's fist, is currently owned by a reclusive but well-to-do business man by the name of Steele. With pressure from hierarchically coming from above, Sherborn Tharp hires Arlo to purchase the crystal and return it to him, no questions asked. The Deputy Assistant of Security for the United Nations Space Administration (USNA), Tharp, cannot envision the perils which lay in deep space for Arlo, nor can he contemplate the importance the crystal has on humanity's place under the stars.

Once the crystal is handed over to Arlo and he secures the metallic attaché case to his wrist, the craft he is flying in is almost at once attacked by the Guard. Stumped by whose allegiance the Guard is under, Arlo knows for certain that trust cannot be wantonly given to passers-by. His dramatic rescue by a female pilot plunges him further into cross-weaving agendas for ownership for the crystal. Dodging criminals, scoundrels, and general lowlifes, the two keep a low profile on a mining planet while those who vie for the crystal's power tie up loose ends... which requires ammunition to be spent and blood to be spilled.

Without an allegiance to any of the vying parties, Arlo eventually places a limited amount of trust in his rescuer, the female pilot/lithesome companion Tabby Brooke. Her prerogative of returning the crystal to earth is unsettling to Arlo, as his knowledge of earth concerns its mutated inhabitants and derelict cities; the Plague survivors of earth, the Sgor la Lyurr, are seen as primitives and little could connect them with the extraterrestrial artifact.

In an arm of the galaxy colonized by humans, no benevolent alien life has been found, while one alien raced, named the cobras, are savagely at war with the humans. A seemingly blood-thirsty race, once such conflict has forever scarred the mind of Arlo as he saw his friends die one-by-one by the single vicious attack of a cobra. But it are the cobra, too, who find that ownership of the crystal is the most dire need for the continuation of their race.

This is only my second Greenleaf novel but I can summarize his style as this: technically specific but without the mumbo-jumbo typically associated with it, fast paced but without missing large tracts of plot, character-based but not superficially glazed, and attentive to detail without being obnoxious or repetitive. The entire composition comes off very cleanly without the sanitized sensation of a paint-by-numbers novel.

When I say "technically specific" I don't mean page after page of scientific detail or a step-by-step physics lesson ala Charles Sheffield, Greg Egan, or Bruce Sterling. Grreenleaf isn't so specific as he his attentive to the environment the characters are placed in and interact with (hmm, well put): "The girl folded the flight control wheel into its niche under the console. She keyed a command, and the craft's grav control set the level at Terran standard." (35) "He flipped the switch to borrow power from the idled drive engines. The commset speaker burped once, then began issuing a faint hum." (41)

All this provides a fairly homely feel for where the characters are placed. When the cast are set in a spaceship, an office, a bar, or a hotel, Greenleaf follows through with this importance of character environment: "Their room was as dismal as the rest of Bly Harbor. The furniture consisted of a word couch and a bed that sagged in the middle." (61) "The towers that cast shadows across city blocks were of the same squared designs of concrete and glass [...] Rusted heaps of apparatus squatted on the flat roofs." (161)

Everything that Greenleaf mentions in The Pandora Stone is relevant to the plot. There aren't any loose threads, no red herrings, no parallel plots of annoying brevity, and no social or political diatribes. He's written a very well packaged science fiction book, perhaps common to the 1980s but taken with a sigh of relief before the 1990s trend of 500 page tomes somehow became fashionable. All the aliens, all the technology, all the groups vying for the crystal, and all the histories leading up to the climax are important to Greenleaf's plot. Maybe it's not exactly Hugo material or spiced with philosophy, but it is an exciting novel which entertains... something which most Hugo authors tend to forget about.

Along with William Gibson, Greg Bear, and Larry Niven, William Greenleaf also provides an entertaining 1980s novel in comparison to the lengthier and more weighted likes of Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin, and George Alec Effinger. Greenleaf provides the perfect recipe for flawless entertainment, at the cost of being simple and structured but not juvenile or scripted.

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