Mother of Plenty by Colin Greenland (HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 451 pages, paperback. Published 6 July 1998.).
It's no accident that the heroine of this trilogy, the irrepressible Captain Tabitha Jute, has as one of her loyal companions a ship persona called Alice Liddell. This is the name of the girl upon whom Lewis Carroll based his character of Alice in Wonderland and Greenland is, in this series, one of Carroll's direct literary inheritors.
The three books about Captain Jute and her escapades surrounding the vast alien spaceship, Plenty, are ripping yarns with a large cast of colourful, richly imagined characters. They combine good character drama with the playfulness of decadent fantasy and the thrills of adventure in a way which I don't remember reading anywhere else.
At this point I should say that I missed out on the second book in the series and when I read this one I soon realised that this was a mistake. Whatever happened in it was big and whole swatches of storyline in the third volume were utterly lost on me. However, even though I spent the whole book wondering why the various sets of characters were doing the bizarre things they were doing the writing and the sheer enjoyable experience of the adventure kept me reading right to the end.
Taken by my serious, literal mind which was just a moment ago focused on hard, near-future SF, the life and times of Tabitha Jute seemed like a seriously strange load of old guff when I started reading. I kept asking, "But WHY are the Seraphim in cahoots with the caterpillars-in-the-head people?"; "Now why on Earth would you stitch his head onto a clone body, he's a dreadful man." It was a mystery, and yet, within a few chapters Jute, Saskia and Dodger Gillespie seemed real and important; and how can you not enjoy people with names like Sweet Lavender and Pomeroy Lion? And I won't even mention the Seraph Kajsa's penchant for hanging out in black basque and suspenders whilst orchestrating vast biological experiments.
The trilogy celebrates all that's fun, fantastic and flighty in a couple of centuries of British literature and does so with a tangible pleasure in the effort. Its larger significance doesn't lie in the usual 'what if', 'if only' and 'if we don't stop..' areas of SF, and perhaps only its future setting, technology and aliens really make it SF. The distinction is for other people to bicker over. These books retain a depth of wonder and strange delight.
Definitely worth packing for the long-haul on SF's voyage out of the millennium, but it's best to take the books in order to make the most of them.
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© Justina Robson 17 October 1998