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Expendable, James Alan Gardner, AvoNova, 1997, 337 pp.
Expendable, James Alan Gardner's first novel, is quite an accomplished, highly readable debut. Gardner creates a playful tone throughout the book (which is not as easy to pull off as it appears) and a clever narrative structure. He moves from comedy to tragedy with ease, and treats both as sides of the same coin. There are a number of problems with the book, most stemming from the basic premise, and the point of the exercise is sometimes obscured by the adventure/space-opera flourishes. Do I recommend the book? Definitely. Should you wish a pleasant diversion, with some fun characters and a straightforward plot, dive right into this book. Expendable succeeds at the level of most easy-reading beach fodder, but also goes beyond that. Gardner's work is deceptive, and doesn't quite fit this kind of dumbed-down pigeonhole.
The Cold from Hell
I bought Expendable when I was coming down with a cold, and when I got around to reading it, my cold was so nasty that my brain refused to function at all. I don't mind being sick if I can at least do some reading, so this was particularly disheartening. The next day, I was still in bed but my head felt much clearer, and I had two choices, Expendable or Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (I'm very interested in seeing Marleen Gorris' film version of Mrs. Dalloway, which is why I was going to re-read the book after studying it half a dozen years ago). I've read both books by now, but on that day, I got about two pages into Woolf's dense stream-of-consciousness prose and gave up. I turned to Gardner for some easier reading, and was rewarded by an afternoon of laughs and fun reading. How would I compare the two books? The relationship of science fiction to the mainstream (two dubious categories, but I'd rather not get into definitions right now) is always fascinating to me, and I think that it's often too easy to dismiss genre fiction. I like all kinds of writing, and don't have much patience for the little ghettos that develop, each with their own incestuous theories of excellence. Of course, context is important, and it's hard to judge a book without looking at its contextual purpose. I'm only trying to say that the easy-reading Expendable shouldn't suffer compared to the style-heavy Mrs. Dalloway. I enjoyed both books, plain and simple.
Gardner Vs. The Man Who Thinks A Lot Of Himself
The story of Expendable is straightforward: Festina Ramos is an Explorer, and gets assigned to Melaquin, the planet from which no Explorer has ever returned. She has a few adventures on that planet, and then manages to escape. The ending feels a bit cheap, but Gardner has certainly set it up logically enough -- no complaints about the mechanics of the big payoff, but it still felt anticlimactic. The book had just the right amount of speculation and new ideas (I'll mention my favourite concept in the next section), and everything felt integrated into the characters' lives. People used and abused their technology, as per human nature, and we could even guess what some of the grimmer misuses might be before the villain got around to it.
The aspect of the premise that is expressed in the title caused me a few problems. Only people with deformities or flaws are expendable enough in the eyes of the society of the future to take on the risky job of Exploring. John Clute, the man who is rather full of his own opinion, did an unfair hatchet job on Expendable for this very matter (in his online column "Excessive Candour" for SciFi Weekly). I'm torn on this one actually, because I am quite willing to grant a book its underlying premise. However, despite all the time Gardner spends trying to convince the reader that society could indeed develop in this way, I wasn't quite persuaded. Not necessarily because the idea is so outrageous -- a cursory look at human history easily demonstrates much more harmful sociopathologies. And certainly not because I'm worried about being politically correct (a phrase which I absolutely despise because of its rhetorical use as a way to end a discussion without actually debating the issue). This misuse of language is nothing new, certain Victorians thought the umbrella was "unnatural," Coleridge called his own style of writing "natural" in the Biographia Literaria, and examples from our era abound as well: "better dead than red," "just war," etc). My difficulties arose from the way the character interactions didn't quite ring true, and how Ramos' development as a character felt gimmicky -- this with regard to appearance. The non-Explorer characters always acted the same towards the Explorers. At an appropriate point in the plot, Ramos has a chance to fix up her appearance, and this leads to a mechanically heartwarming choice at the end of the book. Perhaps this might not bother other people, and I haven't made up my mind to dislike the book for this. But it's a niggling thing that may have disappeared with a few rewrites.
The League of Peoples
The League of Peoples -- does this sound ominous? Utopian? Gardner speculates about the presence of advanced alien races in the galaxy and he comes up with an absolutely fascinating idea. The advanced races in the League of Peoples let other races do whatever they please on their own planets, but space travel is restricted to those who are sentient... which seems silly. But the League regards any form of murder as non-sentient, and is prepared to go to drastic lengths to enforce the rule. Gardner raises a fundamental philosophical point here, one that the human race has had a good deal of trouble understanding or implementing. How to judge an action in terms of ethics? What are ethics? The League is essentially a deus ex machina, letting us off the tough aspect of making the judgment. We still need to follow through on the strict code, and in one sense Gardner seems to imply a rather pessimistic view of humanity. And the debates about human and non-human actions in Slonczewski's novels of Shora (of which Expendable reminds me in many ways) get down into infinitely tougher questions (like: who are we to make judgments? isn't punishment itself a non-human action? and so on). Or are those only different questions? I'm not going to slam Gardner's book on this issue, because I liked the ideas so much. And he often makes the same deeply ethical points about humanity as Slonczewski but without the extra overt discussion, by the means of the reader comparing to the events of the book to the present-day. For example, I wouldn't have minded a better look at the religious implications of what the League of Peoples does, but I could draw many inferences on my own.
Best of all, the few details about the advanced races in the League feel thoroughly right. The League keeps track of every action of every being in the Galaxy, and I got the feeling that this was only a minor project for them. As if ethical infractions offended their esthetic sense, or something. Admiral Chee tells a story about a tribunal held by the League: "most of us kept our eyes on the three arbitrators, to gather as much information as possible about the high mucky-mucks who really hold power in the League. In this case, the tribunal was a cloud of red smoke, a glowing cube, and a chair that sure as hell looked empty" (58). This story becomes crucial later on, but is interesting in itself. Gardner gives the reader a good sense of how the advanced races have their own mysterious motives and projects, the whole ethics thing being the only part we can understand.
Only the foolhardy or the very skilled try to write something humorous -- it's either funny or it's not, and there's nothing appealing about an unfunny joke. Gardner creates humour in a number of ways. He uses a structure reminiscent of Brunner's stylistically over-the-top novels from the '70s -- one word or phrase length captions for small sections of the text -- but to a much different purpose. Gardner makes little jokes all along, and then puts various styles of prose in each section. For example the section on pp. 18-19 is called "Worm, Sperm" and has to do with colloquial names for the FTL drive and its apparatus. A quotation from that section: "REASON 3: Given time, a ship's crew will attach sexual innuendo to anything. It makes their jobs more exciting" (19). Not all of the sections have this kind of humour (which I admit may seem dubious to some people), and in fact I was hoping Gardner would pull a few postmodern tricks on us. The first person narration itself remained perfectly straightforward throughout the book, but the structure was more playful than most science fiction books.
I found the main source of humour in the book to be the characters, and usually one that would supply the laughs at any given time. Early in the book Admiral Chee pulls a number of hijinks and says outrageous things. The infirmary doctor takes away Chee's pants, thinking this will stop him from wandering around the ship. Chee's reaction: "'It didn't work, did it? And do you know why? Because I'm an admiral and people are more embarrassed seeing my ass than I am showing it. Watch'" (42). In the middle section of the book, Ramos meets a woman named Oar, who has a strange notion of when to use expletives. Her commentary provides the humour until Tobit, an older Explorer, comes onstage again near the end of the book. Perhaps some of the jokes to do with bad language are a bit juvenile, but Gardner at least knows that (take a look at his dedication) and, on the whole, puts them in a witty context. Gardner's Expendable is quite a treat, situated as it is in a genre notorious for its over-seriousness.
This review has been brought to you by Fisherman's Friend, Tylenol, Benedryl Expectorant, and Kleenex.
Last modified: March 24, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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