All work and no play make them a dull crew (4/5)
Eons ago, I remember browsing historical fiction authors online while looking for one that might interest me. Having read only of smattering of SF, I settled upon some familiar authors: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) and Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years (1989). I’ve never been one very interested in studying history, so I wasn’t bowled over by the sub-genre of speculative fiction and wasn’t keen on venturing further in with authors like Harry Turtledove or Parke Godwin (pretty much the only two names I could recall from the sub-genre). While I was browsing Elite Bookstore (now selling mainly Japanese titles) in Bangkok, I spotted one of Godwin’s few science fiction titles: Limbo Search. Though the colors and composition of the cover were appalling, I bought and filed it on my shelves reluctant to peer into its chapters.
Rear cover synopsis:
“A CRY FOR HELP
A bloodied veteran of Limbo Search, it is Charley Stoner’s job to protect unmanned planets from deadly corporate exploitation. Until now, nothing has ever gone beyond the range of his considerable experience… Until now.
A mysterious, distorted message has been intercepted from the impossible blackness of empty, alien space—beckoning Stoner and an untested crew toward the dangerous uncertainty of entity invasion.
Combat readiness has been activated. All that is known must be abandoned. Hydri IV Search Mission is underway, moving Stoner and his raw trainees forward on the incredible adventure they only dreamed—and feared—was possible.”
Earth’s corporations are exploitive when it comes to new resources—namely, new virgin planets. Rather than allowing each mega-corporation full freedom to ravage the planets of their precious metals, UNESA (United Earth Space Authority) has set up listening stations around Earth’s galactic neighborhood to eavesdrop on the corporations’ chatter. One such station, Limbo Search, is placed around Hydri Beta; though the Corporations haven’t yet surveyed, let alone exploit, the planets of the system, Limbo Search keeps a polyglottic ear to the sky: English, Mandarin, Russian, French and Hispanic Complex.
While all search crew aboard listening stations must be multi-lingual and abstain from the vices of alcohol, tobacco and sex, Charley Stoner’s (Warrant Officer) station of Limbo Search only has the former requirement. Alcohol and tobacco are not condoned but can be found about while relationships on the mixed-sex on the station are a tepid affair spoilt by the nature of the stressful job. Pairing off is almost a formality and making any sort of future plans (be they on the station or on Mars) borders on taboo.
Rather than finding chatter between corporations, their survey ships and Earth, Limbo Search intercepts an alien signal from the planet of Hydri IV. The strange signal has dual harmonics and sounds like the lowed pitch of two singers crossing through resonance and dissonance. The ground-based transmission station is difficult to pin down at their distance so Stoner sends a Search Mission to the planet to triangulate the transmission. However, around the planet and coming out of sub-space is a gigantic alien ship. It simply sits there; the crew of the Search Mission wait for their deaths but realize that something is wrong with the ship. It doesn’t respond to any form of hail nor does it strike them dead; one crew member posits that the alien sub-space engine malfunctioned and the alien crew are disabled.
Much like the half-hearted love life on Limbo Search, the division between UNESA and the Corporation is blurred by time. Intelligence Officer Pauley, aboard Limbo Search, is eventually made privy to the fact that there is a corporate mole on the station. Though Pauley initially fingers Beaudry as the suspect because of his atypical flawless background, Pauley's senior (Waites) informs him that the innocuous Vietnamese-ethnic Thun. Pauley goes forward with the Waites' plan to rid themselves of the mole even though Pauley himself was certain Beaudry was the odd man out. Waites stands to the side, amused.
Meanwhile, amid the mild yet invasive turbulence of love and deceit, the land-based alien signal intermittently broadcasts and one fact becomes clear: it's speaking human languages, albeit very slowly. Are there alien-equivalent eavesdroppers like themselves beyond their galactic neighborhood, which has just gotten much, much smaller?
Limbo Search is a difficult book to start. Almost the first 20% of the book is crammed with acronyms, pilot-related vernacular and heavy detail related to the environment in which the crew are situated. It's not fun, it's not easy, and it certainly isn't friendly top the reader. BUT, this can be forgiven as the frisson of emotion works its way through the technical cracks of the plot to slowly effervesce; as this unfolds, the emotional content of the plot clouts the technical detail until it too is pure and difficult to grasp. As every dawn has a dusk, so too does the plot lapse back into a technical fixation but ends with a whip snap of emotion.
Because of initial loss in the techno-blabber, I may have lost the subtle characterization Godwin had been trying to establish and its repercussions. While the steady transition from technical to emotional was masterful, it was difficult to understand as a story-telling vehicle from a single read. In retrospect, I see the stress-laden crew in their heavily technical environment fighting with their basic humanity: freedom from restraint. The professional strain combined with the nanny state of their work environment compels them to accept superficial relationships which become the only drama in their rather placid lives.
Even the aliens are a—I can't really say “clever” because it's too obvious, but—good vehicle to shatter the technological pride of the humans and belittle their emotional understanding of humanity. I feel compelled to say that the aliens are “stereotypical aliens” but that’s almost an oxymoron, yet it will suffice for now. Aboard the Limbo Search, stereotypes are also abound: the Vietnamese man who still drinks rice whiskey, the German man who interjects his speech with Germanisms, and the addicted smoker who squirrels away cigarettes and willingly incurs the fines resulting from his habit.
While each personality may be nebulous as the corporations which exploit the cosmos, the surface-level emotional investment between characters creates a unique tension between them—a token pairing for the same of drama. This, too, imparts tension with the reader, who observes (in third-person omniscient) the unnecessary pairing-off and the resulting battle of soullessly authenticating the relationship. As mentioned before, even the conclusion offers whiplash of emotion; this whiplash isn’t directed at the reader to evoke a response, rather a coming-to-terms for the character in situ.
Beneath the overarching technological/emotional plot, there lingers a tang of absurdity which the reviewer can’t pin down. The sixth-sense of absurdity is bolstered by one of Parke Godwin’s other series: Snake Oil (Waiting for the Galactic Bus  and The Snake Oil Wars ). It seems he had had a pleasure for writing criticisms of modern life and history. I’m not sure if there is anything else in his bibliography which beckons my readership, but one may still catch my eye.