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Polar City Nightmare

by Katherine Kerr and Kate Daniel

(Victor Gollancz, £9.99, 357 pages, trade paperback; ISBN 0-575-06860-4; published 13 July 2000. Mass market paperback published 10 May 2001.)

You know how sometimes you can find yourself thoroughly enjoying a book that's cover scanunoriginal, badly written, poorly thought out or weakly characterised (maybe even all of the above) and then sometimes you can be thoroughly bored by a book that's perhaps just a smidgen unoriginal, only a touch badly written, merely a little poorly thought out or ever so slightly weakly characterised?

Polar City Nightmare (a great, noir-ish title) is not badly written, the style is quite a snappy modern one, nor is it poorly thought out: sf-detective-thrillers such as this require a relatively high level of plot development. It is unoriginal and weakly characterised though, so much so that I found the whole thing quickly became a terrible chore to read.

The Republic is "a human-run interstellar government", but a wee tiddler surviving on sufferance between two proper alien galactic empires. In Polar City on the Republic planet of Hagar a valuable quasi-religious artefact belonging to one of the empires has been nicked. Without its return an interstellar war is likely which will forever end the Republic's independence.

So far so good, but it turns out that only a baseball team can save the order of the galaxy and soon after that I lost interest.

Polar City is a present-day (American) city transplanted to another planet and given some hi-tech public transport systems on which aliens and psychics sometimes travel. There's no sense of wonder about the place and the fact that everybody in the Republic is a huge baseball fan only made it all the more fantastic to this UK reviewer. How does a game that isn't played by anyone outside of one (admittedly large) country today become the sport of the future?

The stupendous alien empires aren't really seen sufficiently to give any sense of the veiled threat they pose, although the idea is interesting -- and the representatives that we do see are no more alien than our own royal family: one of them is (of course!) utterly fascinated by the game of baseball.

One of the central characters is a blatant plot device in that she always has some contact or background in some useful area to enable her to move things along a little (a psychic boyfriend who could have been a baseball contender, a shadowy military past; she's owed "favours" by the police, criminals, outcasts and matriarchs alike, and she owns an illegal anthropomorphised superhacker AI which can find out anything from any computer system).

One noteworthy point is made in the author's note: "With most science fiction, the readers may safely assume that all the human characters are white unless the author says otherwise. In Polar City, the situation is exactly the reverse." It's a good point deservedly made (although as everyone knows, Heinlein did it quite some years ago in Starship Troopers) but it is completely lost in the book itself because there's nothing to challenge our easily made assumptions. Perhaps the mere inclusion of this statement was thought to be enough to shock the reader out of their assumed complacency, but as a statement of positive intent it falls down simply because it's barely mentioned again, let alone solidly backed up. I wasn't looking for overt black culture references but neither was I expecting everyone to sound so -- I have to say it -- white. Disappointing at best, cheap PC point-scoring at worst.

Polar City Nightmare throws together too many clichés to gain a sense of its own identity, to create a believable future or memorable characters. The actual prose style isn't so bad; it's competently written, but that's never been enough to save a book before and it isn't now.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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