I’d been meaning to read K.A.Bedford for some a long time, an author of the gritty sf-noir that I go for. So when his novels became available in eBook form, I downloaded a copy of his 2003 debut, “Orbital Burn,” which features an animated corpse as a down on her luck detective, working her last case before she falls to pieces (literally) for an augmented dog named “Dog,” who is searching for the human he’s psychically linked to, a boy named…”Boy.” Oh, and meanwhile, planet-killer asteroid is cruising in to obliterate the scene of the crime.
I got most of the way through it, but choked towards the end and tossed it aside. Terrible? No, not especially, clunky is the word I often use on books like this, but in retrospect, it was a credible effort. Not a brilliant bit of writing, but it just didn’t hold me to the end.
Which is ironic, because the end figures in the setup for Bedford’s second novel, “Eclipse” set a few generations later in the same universe, and when it’s mentioned all I could think was, “Really?” Still, for $2.99, the Kindle price, it’s better than getting mugged in a space elevator.
I don’t recall whether I zoned on the author’s name when I picked the second book up or decided that a novel about a new space academy graduate shipping out on his first assignment might be more fun than the decomposing detective in his first. I may have had it backwards.
Unfortunately, all through “Eclipse,” I kept hoping things were going to turn around for the main character, James Dunne, who finds himself on a deep space military vessel with a madman for a captain and a sadist for a first officer, but it never happens. At least he’s a bright kid with a positive attitude who hasn’t let the apparently corrupt system break him, and he’s got a shot at a relationship with Socha, the bright, attractive, and spunky engineering officer from his class and assigned to the ship.
What James hadn’t counted on was pervasive corruption in “Her Majesty’s Navy,” and his best efforts to protect Socha put her at risk and him in the ship’s infirmary. Throughout the book he keeps “accidentally” falling down stairs and winding up back there, often brought in by a most concerned exec, who the doc knows is the real source of our boy’s injuries, but knows there isn’t any point in challenging the senior officers.
When the warship finds itself in a first contact situation, James is sent aboard what looks to be an alien derelict to scout out the ship because none of the other officers are willing to risk their necks and the captain figures James’ neck is more than a little disposable. When James and the science team are done poking through a ship filled with alien sludge, they’ve found several live aliens, who look like overgrown insects, which they bring back to the ship.
Wouldn’t you know that the captain has a deep seated phobia against insects; especially ones that might just have telepathic powers. Finding the alien vessel was just bad luck for the captain and aliens alike. So bad that there’s some suspicion that it wasn’t luck at all. What follows isn’t pretty for anyone, especially for the aliens, and it just keeps getting worse, including some off-screen torture, genocide, rape, and the loss of pretty much everything our boy cares about.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked. Winston Churchill, is credited with having said of naval tradition that “it’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.” Though he denied it, regretfully.
By the end of “Eclipse” there’s nothing much left to save, but Bedford drops a “Deus Ex Machina” in just the same, though to no real purpose as far as we can see.
Lots of authors have put newbie spacers in tough spots like that and had the ship and crew straightened out by the middle of the book. Take academy graduate Ishmael Wang of Nathan Lowell’s Solar Clipper series, for example. When Ish steps aboard his first assignment the captain and first officer are every bit as bad as Rudyard and Fergusen on the Eclipse. Ish isn’t all that different from James, and the officers he’s up against are vicious, brutal and happy to employ muscle to soften up a new officer, but he’s got the author on his side, and he builds up allies everywhere he goes. So does James, but Bedford’s view is so dark that even the good he finds is tainted with bad, and things just keep getting worse throughout the book.
You could make a case that Bedford is noir-realism rather than romantic fiction, and you’d get no argument from me. In the end, the authors powers of prose and persuasion simply aren’t equal (here at least) to the challenge of making corruption compelling.
I may have to go back and finish “Orbital Burn,” which actually had a more endearing cast of characters, despite the central figure being dead.
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