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Penumbra by Eric Brown (Orion Millennium, £5.99, 346 pages, paperback; published 18 March 1999.)

cover scan

No, come on, what really happens at the end?

I've never read anything by Eric Brown before, but I liked the look of Penumbra enough to put it to the top of my "To read" pile when it arrived. The first few chapters had me hooked. A convincingly mundane description of the life of a space-tug pilot working Earth orbit in 120 years time.

"Eric Brown sure can write!" I thought to myself, and raced through the rest of the book. Only, it was like the cartoons where Wil E Coyote runs off a cliff and keeps running on thin air for a bit, before he notices and then falls to the canyon floor. I ran through this book and off the final pages, the book disappearing from under me. What happened to the story?

The plot is a pulp "classic". A hard-bitten but emotionally stunted pilot is snapped up by an eccentric millionaire planning a dangerous secret expedition to a distant never-before-explored planet, which offers the tantalising possibility of riches beyond imagination. Simultaneously, a rookie lieutenant in the Calcutta police force is on the trail of a vigilante serial killer with a mysterious purpose.

Are the two connected? How will the author connect them? Can he? Should he?

I couldn't really understand why anyone would even attempt such a thankless task, and, having finished Penumbra, I must confess I still can't. The barely audible machinations of other similar books, where the cogs of plot, detail and character mesh cleverly together into a fine machine, are here replaced with two single enormous wheels grinding against each other at speed. You know they're going to meet, to the detriment of both, and can only wonder why.

Peter F Hamilton is quoted on the cover as saying, "Eric Brown is the name to watch in SF," and I can understand why he might like Brown's work. The backdrop and the ideology at work within Penumbra are close to that seen in Hamilton's own capitalism enriched universes, not least in his Night's Dawn trilogy (of which I'm a big fan).

I must admit to having more sympathy with the Banksian Culture vision of the future, seeing these extensions of 20th century economics into space as too near-sighted to ring true. But, as I said, this hasn't stopped me from thoroughly enjoying Hamilton's work one bit. He's able to compensate for any quibbling little philosophical failings through the sheer roaring hurricane of invention that pervades his books. Brown, on the other hand, can't sustain his universe in the same way, introducing nothing new after the introductory chapters, and consequently Penumbra slumps into a generic slough of despond.

We're told the distant never-before-explored planet is exactly that. Then the characters jump into a ship and arrive four months later. Our hero spends two days there before jumping, alone, back into his ship and returning to Earth to collect a McGuffin, link with the other storyline and change his underwear. He then turns around and come straight back to the distant never-before-explored planet.

I seriously began to worry about Penumbra's conclusion at this point, since there were precious few pages left with which to enthrall me over the "fateful meeting with a mysterious alien race."

If you're planning to read Penumbra then stop reading this review now.

In the last ten pages a whole race of super aliens is discovered hiding in a big damp mouldy cave. The serial killer reveals himself, tries to kill everyone, fails dismally and dies. Then, anyone who wants it is given enlightenment and immortality, before heading out to tell everyone else about all this cool stuff they've found.

Honestly, that's what happens. If Penumbra were the first part of a whole sequence then such an ending would be forgivable - desirable, even. As it is Penumbra reads as though a group of friends turned up at Brown's house while he was writing and pestered him to come down the pub with them; so he quickly finished up his latest novel and went.

Which is a shame, because Penumbra shows some real promise earlier on.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 22 May 1999