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The Guardians: The Krilov Continuum by JMH Lovegrove (Millennium, £5.99, 342 pages, paperback; published 6 July 1998.).

The most frightening thing about this book lies on the title page, in the words "Book One", which can only mean that someone is going to perpetrate several more. Now, it's not that it's the worst thing I've ever read, it's actually the tub-thumping mediocrity of the entire thing which causes offence.

Truly bad books have a certain charm, like the classic mushroom vol-au-vent - it's cold and slimy, tastes of paste, has the bite quality of a rotted melon rind and sticks to your teeth like glue, and yet what else could so perfectly capture late 70s suburbia? It's loathsome, yet pleasurably evocative.

This book evokes things too, many of them.

Imagine the following and you'll soon see what I mean - it's like the Avengers all jump on the X-Files bandwagon, pausing to pick up Andy McNab and Austin Powers, and then rush about in the service of largely unseen alien masters who are busy patronising the human race into an early grave.

The plot buys up and unifies all the great 'spookies' - Tunguska, Roswell, Atlantis, all of mythology, Hangar 18, Stephen Hawking's speak-n-spell. Now imagine it related in a style which vacillates between a keen 17-year old novelist with a big dictionary, a halfway decent literary novelist phoning in a hack performance and the masterly satire of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm.

Surely any Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlisted author who can pack in the alliterative genius of "sinuous silvery rivulet" and "stockade of scholastic sodality" in the first three pages cannot be taking the effort entirely seriously? I felt this hallmark was rich with the promise of a great ironic stab at the pulp hackwork of media-tie-ins, but when I read further, this didn't seem to be the case. The borrowing and the badness don't go nearly far enough.

For instance, Lovegrove demonstrates a strange tendency to slip in technically correct, but stylistically unsuitable, vocabulary into otherwise workmanlike prose - "steatopygous", "athwart", "besmirched" to mention a few words thus used, although it doesn't happen often enough to be a joke. And then, at one point, there is a startling moment when one of the characters, an ex-policeman, comments on the tendency of police officers to use " a florid, unnatural form of English" in their reports and has to stop himself doing it when he gets tired. Post-modern self-referential irony or not? It has to be - the rest of the technical aspects of the writing are too competent to allow it to be anything else. But whatever it is, it stands out like a quarterback's foot in your eye most of the time.

And then there is the plot and the characters, two sets of jolly old cliches from Central Plots and Central Casting who take the reader with them on a predictable future-of-humanity-in-the-balance bloodbath without too much personality or conscience getting in the way. I'm told by Those Who Know that JMH Lovegrove (or James Lovegrove as he is otherwise known) is not entirely responsible for all of this mercenary lack-of-invention-in-search-of-dollar-one, but inexplicably he neglected to distance himself by just taking the money and putting the name Aloysius Nickelodeon on the cover so, unfortunately, he gets the boot.

I ask, would you throw your lot in with a set of paraterrestrial aliens from another dimension who started out interfering with human evolution back in the stone age and gave us Atlantis, only to snatch it back with the petulant anger of the parent of a two-year old once we showed to them that humans have this unfortunate and evil internal greed characteristic by trying to invade their space and get more fun technology? Of course they were great intelligences and sociological geniuses so they never saw that one coming. It's all so reminiscent of that tired old Christian axiom of original sin and the even more tired old horror stories of messing with nature and the tragic flaws of humanity.

Well, humanity has its tragic flaws but they deserve a bit more than being used as the fall-guys for this kind of hackneyed romp towards sentimental martyrdom. In this book we are criticised (as in Jurassic Park and other notable great contemplations on human progress) for wanting to seize knowledge without earning it, because of course this is a terrible and dangerous thing to do because we can't be mature enough to deal with the consequences when it's something we haven't got for ourselves. That's fine as a pretext for a discussion, if it isn't just taken as an unexamined truth, if there is even a smudge of questioning it - but here, as with all the other large and uncomfortable issues, exploration of What Everyone Knows Is Surely True would only be deadweight holding back Our Heroes, and there's killing to be done.

Also wholesale from Lame Duck SF Conceits comes the central plot-driver: the heroines and heroes are human agents of one or other of the controlling alien geniuses, primed for one side (Guardians, good) to prevent early development of fantastical technologies that would destroy poor little humankind through their immaturity and the other side (Anarchs, sort-of-bad-but-we're-more-sophisticated-than-just-good-and-evil) who want to accelerate the invention of free energy, great weaponry and other things which will inevitably destroy us, thus purging this dimension of our awful, weak nastiness forever. I wondered why they didn't simply nuke us themselves and have done with it, but then there would be no Playthings Of The Gods plot which can leave the reader feeling that comforting lack of responsibility for anything the species does, collectively or individually.

And nobody in the entire book, when presented with this information, ever thinks to say, "Those damn paraterrestrials should piss-off back to their own dimension and mind their own beeswax." Instead they pick up their alien donated weaponry (because it's all right for some of us to have it as long as we use it in a good cause) and go off to murder everyone who is sitting on the verge of an untimely technological breakthrough (whatever this means), either through their own brilliance or because they are dupes of the Anarchs.

The extreme lack of any moral element is finally tipped over the balance by two dollops of "Highway To Heaven" sentiment, first when The Guardians neglect to kill a man dying of cancer and secondly when they decide to allow a child to live, despite the fact that it will almost certainly produce more children who must be killed later...all very HUMAN, as the text points out, leaving one of the better-developed characters finally wondering if those paraterrestrial masters really are so very bright and good. At last!

Throughout the mostly reported-action text two strong senses prevail. One is the sense of the author/narrator ploughing ahead in the most economical (for him) way possible to get from A to B, introduce characters, get them in motion. The other is that however we are going from A to B, and however much detail we are told about the characters, none of it is in the slightest engaging. This happened, that happened. There's no sense of presence or vividness or real human interest. The style is wordy and packed with detail that is irrelevant and unenlightening, as if going by a thriller-by-numbers plan where the received wisdom tells an author that the key to verisimilitude is exacting facts. But the self-conscious and passive tone distances the action to such an extent that you don't bother to invest yourself in it the same way you would where the style is more of an invisible one, allowing you to interact directly with the action of the moment. This is quite a pity, because there would be a lot of room for excitingly vicarious roller-coaster drama if you were allowed in.

Lovegrove has a good action imagination and a knack for pacing big shoot-em-up scenes and fights. His secret bases and moated Granges, complete with slightly dotty inhabitants, are hugely enjoyable inventions. He also has a wry eye for humour, where available, and if some of the TV-tie-in jokes are so old they're collecting a pension, there are some great tongue-in-cheek moments and creations as well.

Other good points are his visual imagination for the alien technologies and his deployment of a large array of super-weapons with genuine flair. It must also be said that although the characters are both larger and much smaller than real life in various dimensions, they are imagined with the excited thrill of large-scale pulp adventure - on a par with James Bond's cat-stroking evil geniuses.

If you are looking for a light, yet violent, entertainment without the need to engage too much processing space, this isn't a bad option. But if you like your SF with more underlying muscle and originality you're going to struggle within these pages. Also, if you know about computers, you'll be irritated by the use of received net-wisdom, hacker-lore and jargon here, none of which holds water, but then, the whole thing is more full of underlying credibility holes than a colander so it would be churlish to zero in on that.

All in all a book that seems like the book of the TV series that hasn't yet been filmed. No serious investment by the author requiring no serious investment by the reader except £5.99 hard cash. It has its enjoyable set pieces and curiously bizarre style and no doubt depending on your frame of mind you could find it either thrilling or funny or both. Once I decided to follow the Cold Comfort rule and stopped trying to take it so seriously I found that it was more enjoyable, and it's the kind of book that would pass a journey or a dull afternoon or keep a teenager quiet for the evening. Not great or classic or groundbreaking SF, it does seem to have been shipped direct from the Old Baloney Factory but, as many pubs have recently returned to serving those stodgy old school puddings, so there is probably a market for old-school SF yarns, where this book should go down nicely.

Review by Justina Robson.

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© Justina Robson 13 September 1998