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The Space Eater

by David Langford

((Cosmos Books, $17.95, 229 pages, paperback, first published 1982, this edition published 2004.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanWormhole 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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