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Approaching Omega

by Eric Brown

(Telos, £7.99, 117 pages, paperback; also available as deluxe, signed, numbered, limited edition hardback priced £30.00; published January 2005.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanTed Latimer is one of four maintenance crew on a sleeper ship of five thousand, on a millennia-long search for a new Earthlike world to colonise. Every fifteen hundred years, the four are supposed to wake up, check that everything's running properly, and go back to sleep until the ship's AI finds a suitable planet. But it doesn't work out like that--one thousand years out, something goes wrong. The crew are woken early to find two of their five colonist hangars have been torn off the ship, and they can't make contact with their AI. Nonetheless they go to sleep for another thousand years, and this time wake up to find the AI has converted their passengers into a small army of cybernetic drones. All of a sudden they're the last four humans, battling for their lives against the half-machine remnants of friends and loved ones.

This isn't a philosophical, meditative novel. It comes across like a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster: entertaining but slapdash. The plot doesn't hang together too well under scrutiny, which again suggests a filmic rather than literary endeavour. The notion of a selected five thousand being punted off in a sleeper ship from a wrecked Earth is too clearly a MacGuffin to get the characters into the desired situation, and is dispensed with in the prelude. There's no room (or inclination) to dwell on the wider implications of sending out only five thousand colonists in only one ship as humanity's entire effort at species survival, and with no actual definite target in mind. Well, it is only a novella--working out the backstory in depth would stretch the story out to the length of a full novel, and besides it isn't the story Brown wants to tell. I was a bit surprised there wasn't more follow-up to the damage done to the ship, though--given the build-up I was expecting it to play a key part in the novella's denouement. There are hints early on of anti-colonist saboteurs, and hints early and later on of wilful negligence, if not actual manipulation, by the Omega Corporation, but in the end it's all put down to bad workmanship. I was preparing myself to find out why the Omega Corporation would rig their ship to blow up and program their AI to turn everyone into cyborgs, dagnabbit.

What I really don't get is why the crew would go back to sleep for another thousand years after the first crisis. Wouldn't they, shouldn't they wander around the ship and check everything properly right then instead of leaving it for another millennium? Did the story actually need those few pages of padding? Does the AI actually need another thousand years to start experimenting with the humans? Especially given how quickly the human parts of its cyborgs would start rotting--and moreover, the idea of mechanical parts lasting millennia without degrading is pushing it a bit. But anyway.

The bulk of the novella, some sixty or seventy pages, is taken up with the crew's fight for survival--this is the story Brown wants to tell. These pages are lovingly adorned with grue and gore, and some fancifully grotesque "first attempt" cyborgs. Again, echoes of the blockbuster. This pacy action material actually works better than the more psychological stuff, when the cyborgs start trying to persuade the crew into submission rather than just shooting at them. I'll just say it's hard to believe someone who says "Really, I'm so much better off this way!" when the back of their head is missing and they're dribbling WD40, and leave it at that.

It's hard to see how you could give this grim tale anything other than a downbeat ending; Brown's happy ending appears straight out of a hat anyway, but seems all the more false in the light of what's gone before. At the end of the day, I'm just not convinced by Approaching Omega--it may well appeal to lovers of blood-soaked action fare, but it doesn't have much else to offer.

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