The Space Eater
((Cosmos Books, $17.95, 229 pages, paperback, first published 1982,
this edition published 2004.)
travel is possible, but only up to a diameter of 1.9cm. Through one
such spyhole, the government discovers that a distant colony world is
developing weaponry based on Anomalous Physics, a field of science that
could endanger whole star systems. Send in the Marines! Oh no, wait,
they don't make 1.9cm tall Marines. Enter Ken Jacklin, one of a team
of soldiers trained to charge headlong into death and be grown back
in regeneration tanks, even when blown to a pulp.
Taking a softly, softly approach (made necessary by the time it would
take to send an entire army through) the government plans to mash Jacklin,
pour him through the wormhole to be reassembled in a specially designed
automated capsule on the other side, and have him approach the natives
diplomatically. Accompanying him is Rossa Corman, a woman who can send
messages coded in pain back to Earth by jabbing herself in the arm.
In short, ouch.
The Space Eater is the hybrid offspring of two of David Langford's
short stories (soldiers are trained to die and be regrown repeatedly;
wormhole technology is made possible but impractical due to the limited
size of the wormhole), and both can be found in their original form
in the collection Different Kinds of Darkness. This tale, with
its ghoulish premise, has the potential to become overwhelmingly grim,
but Langford's lightness of tone and style balances it out. Once Jacklin
and Corman are on the other side of the wormhole, the story becomes
more of a Cold War fable as they interact with the colony's warring
inhabitants, with a measure of the sort of political satire that the
Cold War so readily inspired. They have to contend with the machinations
not only of the locals, but of their own government which has been less
than honest with them about the nature of their mission.
The premise that someone can be reconstructed -- body and mind -- from
jam hours after their death is a little hard to swallow, but in general
it's very hard to fault this novel. The characters are rounded and engaging,
the story is lively and well told with intrigue a-plenty, and the science,
however out there it may be, is explained in accessible terms and thought-provoking.
A very rewarding read.
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