Classic Space Opera – T.D. Wilson’s “The Epherium Chronicles: Embrace”

Description by the author / blurb:

Book one of The Epherium Chronicles. It was a bizarre twist of fate that turned James Hood into the Hero of Pluto Station. Now, nearly 20 years after that famous battle against the hostile alien race known at the Cilik’ti, Hood is called on again for a dangerous mission. This time he must take a new ship, the Armstrong, into deep space to make contact with fledgling colonies, created from ships developed by the Epherium Corporation that were launched before the war with the Cilik’ti began. As their journey begins, Hood and his crew discover more information about the colonies and their corporate benefactors. What they uncover could be more dangerous to humanity than a new conflict with their formidable foe.

Review

As stated in the blurb, the “Epherium Chronicles” apparently draw their name from the Epherium cooperation, a huge and potent company. In the “Embrace” it’s to be learnt that Epherium meddles in several disparate activities, at least these ones: weaponry, space ship design and building, accelerator gates construction, hibernation technology, colonisation and terraforming – and scientific research in general. Perhaps one or two of these terms already makes someone less inclined to the natural sciences raise an eyebrow.  With science fiction surely it’s not necessary that the science be sound. Not all the technological marvels must be explained and explanations can be quite arbitrary so long as they don’t run contrary to common sense, to what one thinks could be possible. But what really matters about classic sci-fi is the science-speak as such, irrespective of whether it actually stands to proof. In „The Embrace“ science-speak is often employed, in a manner that makes the reader think that the technology might be true, though he doesn’t understand its principles. Thus, right from the start, the reader is enclosed by the classic sci-fi atmosphere and its perpetually recreated with new insights into the technological state of affairs: the accelerator gates, the space-fold jump, the ‘Embrace’ technology…

But often the reading flow could have been smoothed out by cutting the science-speak passages into smaller pieces. For example: “The Icon shuttles were fitted with light neutronium armor, and a point defense cannon mounted in a revolving turret for fighter/drone deterrence was added to the bottom of the craft. The additional cannon was a welcome addition for shuttle pilots as it complimented the one on the top, which was the standard on older shuttle models. The shuttles were built to carry up to ten passengers and four crew members but contained two side cargo bays and a lower pressure hatch that was typically used for emergency or non-standard docking, EVA, and rescue/recovery of pilots…. etc.” Such science-speak uses to come in a bulk. However, it could also have been woven into the storytelling itself, and with much less strain on a reader more oriented towards fiction than science. The passage in question, instead of being put to the reader as a descriptive chunk, might well have been interspersed throughout the conversation surrounding it – or distributed over a range of other suitable moments.

Else the writing style is not inspired, but functional. Sometimes I would have preferred a phrase construction more easily processable for the mind. I remarked that the author has a tendency to fold moments of time together, say, by connecting events with the preposition “as”. This can make for quite convoluted phrases, like this one: “As the Armstrong was soon to be transferred to EDF fleet control, she had just completed her shakedown cruise and was filled with various technicians and observers intent on monitoring the ship’s capabilities as she was put through various tests.” Nevertheless the author stays in control of his sentences – only at rare instants he trips into uncommon grammar or grammatical error. An example for such a mishap: “He could feel a quick rush of air hit his face as the door opened due to a slight pressure difference between the bay and the corridor stepped through the doorway.” Probably it was meant to read “as he stepped…” Clustering moments of time together might thus not just be puzzling for the reader, but also lead to confusions in expression.
But at any rate the writing always serves the purpose of delineating the opera stage. Now its for the figures to enter.

The characters offer far more than superficial surfaces, they are worked into plastic shape, they appear with dimensional depth. Their depth, however, is primarily a chronological one, it hardly draws from the psychology of the moment. When Hood retells his XO the experience that made him a public hero, the reader learns about an important piece of his past that strongly reverberates in the present – in the nightmares that will kick in, but, first of all, in the position he occupies in the fleet. But although Hood lets his XO share in such a pivotal and widely obscure event of his life, the reader is only left with glimpses of how he might feel in retelling that episode. “Hood replied”, “Hood sighed and shook his head”, “Hood explained”, “Hood paused”, “Hood drank the rest of his coffee”. The scrutiny of the author into the mental state of his main character at this moment doesn’t reach farther than these observations.
Also the past of security chief Maya is explored. She lets the XO partake in the memory of her ‘father’ – the scientist responsible for her genetic engineering, and who indeed seems to have raised her with much affection. The release of these memories sets her in quite an emotional turmoil. The author could have descended into it, he could have thrown light into the complex feelings of this woman, he could have brought the feelings to the fore in describing the minute moments of their expression: a creasing of the brow, a growing red hue in the cheeks, a twitching of lips, a flutter passing through the eyelids, the eyes subdued by a dim haze, the eyes becoming blurry, the eyes watering up etc. Instead he depicts the succession of her expressive behaviour as such: “Maya smiled”, “Maya explained”, “Maya opened a water bottle, drank a large sip”, “Maya explained sadly” – and, by just a leap, two sentences further on, “A single tear began to stream down Maya’s cheek”.
With his forays into the chronology of his characters, the author penetrates into large fields of many-shaded thoughts and emotions which are not always easily reconcilable to each other. But the author doesn’t step down into the fields – instead, he circumvents them and only scratches at the psychological surface.
There is just one small episode where the author takes some steps into these fields – where he lets McGregor, the troop commander of the Armstrong, meet with his ex-wife Becker, present commander of the Mars orbital station. Hood has prompted their encounter. Here the psychological depth of the moment is not borne out by relating the sensitive interplay between feelings and body language, but it’s displayed by the contradictory movements the characters make in coming to terms with what they mean for each other. Either way is a means – and there are others – for bringing to the fore the psychological depth of the moment. 

Now I’m strangely infatuated with Henry James, not the straightforward one of „Washington Square“ or even „The Portrait of a Lady“ but the rather obscure one of „The Ambassadors“ and the like. I confess that, when I made my way through „The Ambassadors“, often I had no clear idea of what was going on at all. One might argue if James hasn’t driven impressionism too far. As I perceive James, he was some sort of literary pioneer. He made bold incursions into the abyss of subjective meaningfulness that yawns behind a simple look, a single gesture, a shake of the hand. I think, for any author, he is the role model for eliciting character depth of the moment. Now I’m not suggesting that T.D. Wilson, in further instalments, had better stretch his writing style into obscurantism. But I’d consider it an enrichment to the story should he start to scratch beneath the surface of the people when they give emphasis to what is important to them – instead of just relying on the habitual conversation-framework of ‘He said’ – She replied’ etc.
But this is rather a personal wish than the detection of a deficit. Since the characters are worked out along their time-line, they are dimensional, tangible – the author succeeds in making their inner life approachable for empathic insight.

Nevertheless, had he made the conversations more sparkling with ambiguity, traps and trespasses, large spans of rather disengaged reading could have been averted from me. The mind is just loosely connected to a tale if the author cannot manage to drag it into it. I felt “in” the story for the first two scenes, which recall the first humans’ first contact with the alien race of the Cilik’ti. But I dropped out again for what was the whole middle part. It’s not that the stretches of conversation didn’t make sense, it’s not that they didn’t fit where they were put – it’s simply that, just as the surface of the characters was turned against me, I resurfaced from the tale. It’s not that I stopped enjoying the story. You can look upon any work of art and enjoy what you see from the outside. Starting with about the forth quarter of the novel, however, I was drawn into living submersion again, when the intruder pulls his strings one after the other, when lines of events cross and exacerbate each other, when things are sliding away from Commander Hood’s control. The living partaking in a novel is an invaluable experience. It can never be compared to the watching of incidents from an external viewpoint. I’m convinced that, had the dialogues been fuelled by a stronger psychological drive, I wouldn’t have been deprived of that experience for such a long way through the story.

But, as said, this didn’t irredeemably tar my enjoyment of it. When I finished the novel, I really thought to myself: „Wow, this was so good!“ Still I have refrained from a 5 star rating. Besides the reasons already adduced, there is another one: that the novel finished – and the way it did.

Embrace“ is the first instalment of a series in five parts, but to me it made no sense at all why it stopped at the precise point it did. Further enlightenment wasn’t shed by the preview to the second part that is annexed. It seems evident to me the novel could well have continued up to this preview, and further on still. To end the novel at the point it did was, most likely, an arbitrary decision, not one that has been forced onto the author by thematic considerations. But this seems the only legitimate reason for any author to withhold from the audience how his tale goes on.
I know this is a completely preposterous assessment – but as all my review judgements, by necessity, are just subjective and grossly biased anyway, I might pass over the stark preposterousness of the assessment – which is: that in my own first novel I was impelled by its theme to close it at the point it did. Thus I could safely publish it as „The earth within – Part 1: Revelation“. At the time it stops, it leaves the events hanging in mid-air, but I wrote the novel with a very peculiar mood. Thus a certain atmosphere was infused into it, that will not, nor cannot be resuscitated in the sequel.
I find that sense of closure drastically lacking from „Embrace“. To this impression adds the quite incomprehensible title: „Embrace“ is called the technology of hibernation that was used for maintaining the colonists’ life on their large voyage through space – the very colonists the Armstrong sets out to encounter. The technology is explained in the novel, the reader might guess at its importance, but its importance doesn’t come into play yet. Where the novel ends, at its random point, the title designates just that: a piece of technology contained in the novel. It might as well have been entitled as „Accelerator Gates“ or „Space-fold Jump“ or „Spaceship EDF Armstrong of the Akita class Dreadnaughts“. The latter would have probably made most sense.

But I’ve slipped into only telling what I disliked about a novel I really liked!
In his bio, the author lists „Battlestar Galactica“ and „Babylon 5“ among his favourites. They are also among my own, and, indeed, the main hallmark of these two series, the character-driven development of an epic tale, is already visible as a principle of storytelling with the „Epherium Chronicles”. But I’m an affectionate of the old, early aborted “Battlestar Galactica”. In consequence I was happy T.D. Wilson didn’t copy from the ‘sex and crime’ working method the modernized “Battlestar Galactica” was thriving on. Wilson reverts to more substantial means for generating suspense: the constant menace of an alien race, an unidentifiable ship, the plotting of the Epherium representatives, the unclear political situation at home, the suspicious status of the colonists, an intruder wreaking havoc on people’s minds, allies turning against themselves – and a commander trying to keep all the pieces of this chess game together while they rattle and flee from his grasp. 

Even in this first part, the “Epherium Chronicles” already carry the nucleus of an epic within them. The kernel slowly unfolds and grows through the introduction of the principal characters and the main plot. When I qualify the novel as classic space opera, ‘classic’ is not meant to veil a dismissive comment – as if the book were just an ingredient collection, all too often seen, for the habitual concoction of space opera. With ‘classic’ I both mean attractive, classy, and yet grounded on the basic tenets of sci-fi in space. It makes sound sci-fi tradition shine with vigour again. And it is an opera because it’s a stage set for characters who face dramatic events. But it is no soap opera boxed into the petty thoughts and actions of two-dimensional figures. It’s an opera because it’s grandiose, because the characters turn their declamatory voices against epic topics. In short: it’s wonderful and I enjoyed it from first to last page.

As Mr. Wilson informed me, the next instalment will be out in April 2013. I hope it will keep up with the quality of “Embrace”, and I also hope the author might spend a thought or two on my remarks. But this is just the egotistical daydream of a reader who is running serious danger of becoming a fan.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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