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The Affinity Trap

by Martin Sketchley

(Simon & Schuster, £10.99, 306 pages, trade paperback, published 2 February 2004. Pocket Books, £6.99, 306 pages, paperback, this edition published 7 March 2005.)

Military Intelligence officer Alexander Delgado has been pissed about once too often by Earth's military dictator, William Myson. He's an old-fashioned soldier who objects to Myson's profiteering ways, and cover scannaturally the feeling is mutual. But when Vourniass Lycern, an alien dignitary with whom Myson is expected to father a child for diplomatic reasons, goes into hiding, Myson sends Delgado after her. It's an opportunity for Delgado to regain favour -- or to spite his leader once and for all. There is, however, a complicating factor Delgado hasn't taken into consideration: the powerful pheromones Lycern's kind emit, highly addictive and irresistible to human males ...

Sounds good, doesn't it? The back of the book makes it sound even better. Let there be no question, Martin Sketchley gives good blurb. But I found the contents of The Affinity Trap didn't live up to its cover in a number of ways. Firstly, and most superficially, the title bears scant relevance to the story. Granted, there's a faction called the Affinity Group, from whom Delgado is sent to retrieve Lycern, but they feature only briefly and impinge upon the plot hardly at all.

As regards the story itself, Sketchley is pretty much hoist by his own blurb, which promises an exploration of "[s]exuality, gender roles, the nature of authority -- the very essence of what it is to be human." In each of these areas, the book falls a little short of expectations.

Sexuality. An inescapable subject in a book one of whose protagonists is a one-being pheromone powerhouse. And indeed, there is plenty of shagging. We establish that Delgado has a sexuality, and we establish that quite firmly, if you'll pardon the adverb. I don't know if this counts as an exploration exactly, but it does provide a hook for the first half of the book, as Delgado is led astray by the narcotic quality of Lycern's pheromones. There's some nice character work here, with Delgado sinking further under Lycern's influence, and later trying to force himself to go cold turkey. More depth on this would have been nice, and carrying it through to a definite conclusion would have been nicer. At the halfway point, however, this promising aspect of the story is sidelined so that Trap can continue on as plain old slam-bang action fare. Now there's a sexual metaphor for you.

A word on the subject of Lycern. Sketchley has gone down the Star Trek route of making his aliens not only largely indistinguishable from humans, but capable of mating with them. Not every reader will have a problem with this, although I personally do. But it's a bit of a disappointment when we're told, right there on the back cover, that Lycern's species, the Seriatt, are "an exotic three-sex race". It transpires that the three sexes are male, female, and a sort of nondescript hermaphrodite that nannies the kids. Lycern's only "exotic" characteristics are her erotic characteristics, and credit where it's due, they're entertainingly otherworldly. I did, however, find myself lying back and thinking of Sigmund Freud: besides secreting a pheromone-laden lubricant from glands all down her sides, when aroused Lycern's lips and breasts swell, and her vulva extends to envelop her partner. I'm ashamed to say I chuckled more than I gasped. That's still a good reaction, though.

(Technical note: it's not actually Lycern's vulva that envelops her partner, but a sort of caul produced from her glandular secretions. I know of a certain Austrian psychologist, however, who might back me up on a metaphorical level.)

Gender roles. Not such good news here, I'm afraid. The two main female characters in the book are Lycern, a walking embodiment of Freudian imagery, and a human rebel rather flatly named Girl. Apart from a short-lived female pilot, all other women in Trap are unnamed minor characters whose sole purpose seems to be procreation. To be honest, Lycern's sole purpose seems to be procreation as well, as she has very little to do when she's not in heat. And the only other woman in the story is called Girl. Oh well.

The nature of authority. There's three potential foci of authority in Trap: Myson, who has ultimate authority over Delgado; the Seriatt, who exert authority over Lycern; and Delgado himself, who assumes authority over a small band of rebels on Earth. It doesn't entirely work out, though. Myson is too much the grotesque, the caricature to exude any actual authority, and this seems to have filtered down throughout Structure, his governmental system. Authority generally is lampooned in Trap, rather than explored in any detail, from the puffed-up staff of the leisure station Elixiion to the embarrassingly camp Customs androids who intercept Delgado on his way back to Earth. We must count the Seriatt a non-starter, since Lycern is the only Seriatt to feature in the entire book. More insight into the workings of her culture would have been nice, and would be greatly appreciated in future novels. Lastly, Delgado. He at least musters an air of authority, but his success with the rebels seems more the result of accident than of design.

In fact, Delgado generally seems to pull through by luck more than anything else -- it's uncanny how often the 24th century's undoubtedly high-tech security arrangements step aside to let him pass. It's stretching the imagination for any character in any futuristic -- or even contemporary -- tale to waltz through a Customs area with a handgun pressed against someone's back and not have anyone notice it. Where were the security cameras, the metal detectors? Later, when Delgado, already a wanted man for having attacked Myson, sneaks back into Military Intelligence HQ, a former colleague tells him he's "heard rumours" about his expulsion. Rumours? Shouldn't that be a full system-wide alert, maybe a death warrant? Delgado's security access hasn't even been revoked! It's all too convenient, and the plot shouldn't rely on such laxity in order to progress.

There is, I'm afraid, more. Pacing is all over the place, the first couple of chapters racing by in a half-glimpsed blur, the rest seeming drawn-out by comparison. The style, too, is uneven: the word "arrogant" is overused in describing human ships, government, culture, etc, similarly the word "bitter" in describing the rebels, and there are a few too many clichéd similes for my liking. Characterisation is somewhat heavy-handed, and formulaic among the rebels -- there's the leader, the rival, the big thick one, the quiet technical one, and of course the token Girl. Yet these are faults that can be ironed out with practice, and the book's dramatic ending -- leading openly into further volumes in the series -- gives some hope that Sketchley will improve, and that the story will carry him through in the meantime. There is potential here. It needs to be developed, and perhaps future Structure novels will see Sketchley develop it.

Review by John Toon.

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