Most of what you’ll find reviewed here at Seagull Rising are works that really blow my skirt up or that really grind my gears. Starship Grifters, by Rob Kroese, is neither. Instead, it’s a very funny book with, that is really well written, and just isn’t for me.
The basic plot of the story follows the adventures of Rex Nihilo as he desperately tries to rid himself of a massive debt. (The details of how he assumed that debt are left vague here for the purposes of saving potential readers the fun of discovery.) Rex is a narcissistic, back stabbing, lying, no-good, dirty, double dealing swindler, but like all the best grifters he has a fearless arrogance and under-dog appeal that soften him up. To make him an easier character to swallow, he is the best of a lot of bad actors – the people he swindles and who swindle him right back are so much worse that you can’t help but root for Rex.
The book is narrated by his faux-femme robot sidekick, Sasha. Sasha is a one of a kind, almost-sentient robot prevented from achieving true sentience by forced reboots every time she gets too clever. This gives Kroese an excuse to deliberately set-up mysteries that Sasha just barely solves – only to blank her mind and deny readers the resolution until events can unfold for themselves. It’s one weird trick that that is as effective and funny as it is transparent.
The leads in this book remind me of a gender-swapped Bender and Fry, of Futurama infamy. You’ve got a lovable rogue – this time a human – and a dim-witted assistant – this time a female robot. It’s a classic pairing, and for good reason. Making the straight man a largely emotionless robot results in a lot of very dry wit being tossed around right alongside some humdinger one liners like these:
- The name of the evil imperial government is the Malarchy.
- It takes a massive, well-funded bureaucracy to solve problems caused by a massive, well-funded bureaucracy
- The Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.
Then there’s the Douglas Adams-esque rationalization for faster-than-light travel:
It was actually well known by the twentieth century that Euclidean geometry is arbitrary, being only one possible way of describing the relations of objects in space. There are a theoretically infinite number of other geometries that all employ their own set of rules. The trick is to find a geometry in which the distance you want to traverse is significantly shorter than in Euclidean geometry. Essentially you reverse-engineer a an entirely new set of geometric rules based on the trip you want to take, and then employ those rules for only as long as the trip lasts.
This is literally called rationalizing a hypergeometric course. Talk about hanging a lampshade on something.
So far I’ve name checked two of the best humor sci-fi franchises around, and you can throw the Stainless Steel Rat onto that pile. This is a book can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of those franchises. It is that funny and well written.
Here’s where this review gets a little trickier to write. Although everything I’ve said up to this point has been glowing, and while I’ll certainly add Kroese to my stable of authors to look for, this isn’t a book that appeals to me these days.
I’m just not a big fan of stories about con-jobs and heists. At this point in my life, I’ve consumed enough moral ambiguity and anti-heroism. My tastes run towards moral reinforcement and true heroism. Rex Nihilo is just a grafter looking out for number one, and that leaves me cold. Bear in mind, I finished this book on the strength of Kroese’s humor and writing, but as pretty as its chrome sparkles it just doesn’t have much under the hood.
To understand where it fails, let’s take a look at how well it meets Misha Burnett’s Five Pillars of Pulp:
- Action Oriented Storytelling: Starship Grifters passes this with flying colors. Those flying colors are typically those of lazer blasts, but it also features space chases and fistfights as well.
- Protagonists with a clear moral compass: Pure fail. Rex’s moral compass always points straight towards himself. His sidekick, Sasha, does what she can to help him, but is constrained by her programming.
- An element of romance in the classical sense of decisive action: None worth mentioning.
- As well as the modern sense of interpersonal passion: This one is a mixed bag. Rex is passionate about money and his own skin, but see number 2. We’ll score a half-point for the passion, but no more because the passion is not in service to anything greater than Rex himself.
- An unapologetic view of violence as the proper tool for overcoming evil: Rex, like all good grifters, believes violence is a tool best used on his behalf by others.
That’s 1.5 out of 5 pillars. That’s a C level effort on the Pulp-O-Meter. This is not to say that Starshp Grifters is a bad book. It’s a lot of fun, and those who enjoy madcap hijinks featuring as many as five separate groups bounce around the galaxy in a constant effort to outlie, out-cheat, and out-swindle each other would be hard pressed to find a book that does it better than Starship Grifters.
That’s just not my cuppa joe.
And really, that may be the highest compliment one could pay an author: I liked this book, even though it’s not the sort of book I typically enjoy.