The last few standalone Alan Black novels that I've reviewed were very different to what he's best known for: the 'Metal Boxes' series of Robert A. Heinlein-influenced military science fiction. 'Chasing Harpo' isn't even a science fiction novel; it's a thriller more than anything else. 'Quest for the White Wind' is a fantasy road movie. 'Larry Goes to Space' is certainly science fiction but it has a completely different voice. Only 'Empty Space', the very first of Alan's books that I ever read, really plays in the same sandbox as the 'Metal Boxes' series.
Well, now we can add 'Chewing Rocks' to that list of traditional Alan Black material. It's a science fiction book, it's clearly influenced by Heinlein (especially 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' this time, along with others) and it feels comfortable again, in the way that 'Larry Goes to Space' didn't because Black was clearly trying to make it different by writing in a style that he had to work at. There are differences here too, but they're in the characters rather than the style.
For instance, the heroine is Chastity Snowden Whyte, in many ways an alternative approach to Blackmon Perry Stone, the lead character from the 'Metal Boxes' books (or rather, vice versa, as this was published in 2009, four years before that series began). Beyond their names reflecting opposite colours and Whyte being female rather than male, they're both children from (and heirs to) important families who want to do their own thing. Stone is third in line to inherit the immense Stone Freight Company, so he's richer than Croesus, but he chose to join the United Empire Navy instead. Whyte's father runs the Whyte Mining Company, which is far from immense but is a going concern on Ceres, but she's not interested in the business per se; she just wants to be working for it, out there in space, on her own, taking asteroids apart for their constituent elements.
Much of this is because Chastity, or Sno as she's usually known, really isn't very good with people and, while a few similarities can be drawn between the character attributes of Sno and Stone, that's the biggest difference to be found and it's a big one because it takes them in completely different directions. I really liked Sno. She's an appealing misfit, someone with good character and good intentions but poor social skills. She's also a misfit in a town of misfits, because she lives in Arizona City on the planetoid of Ceres, appropriately named not only because the author lived in Arizona but because it's the wild west out there in the asteroid belt. Everyone there is a misfit to our earthbound eyes, because they're comfortable in a ten-percent gravity field.
And it's here on Ceres that 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' comes quickly and frequently to mind, especially in the later part of the book when the adventure aspects calm down and we move into dealing with the consequences of them, in a frontier world that's finding its feet. Black builds a believable set of morals and customs for Ceres that are different from ours (and Heinlein's) but are still rooted in the libertarian principles of America's founding fathers. Now, being proudly English, I don't always share these principles (if I had to pick a character from 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' to fit me, it would be Stu, the Earth-born monarchist), but Heinlein's Luna always held a powerful draw for me and Ceres does the same here.
Of course, we have to progress to that point and Black fills the intervening pages with so much that it feels odd to point out that 'Chewing Rocks' wraps up after only 250 of them. It's set against the scientific background of asteroid mining, which is explained in enough depth but not too much, exploring not only technique but some of the dos and don'ts. Against this backdrop, Black combines a story of corporate ambition with another of old fashioned revenge that trawls in corruption, space piracy, frontier law and plenty of science fiction adventure. Put simply, it's a romp, a western adventure in space that could easily have been written sixty years earlier with only minor changes (like to the injuries Sno metes out to the four earther bullies she takes on in Mario's Subs, Suds, Spuds and Grub Pub).
I've already compared 'Chewing Rocks' to 'Metal Boxes'. I should also contrast it to 'Larry Goes to Space', my previous Alan Black review. This book is written in a traditional style with which Black is clearly comfortable; that one was an experiment to write in another voice that wasn't his. Both are full of adventure, but this one is willing to get going quickly and never quit, while that one waited around for far too long. This one has a large ensemble cast of characters, with a strong lead, a large and capable supporting cast and many memorable scene-stealers; that one, well, didn't. And, if that all feels like Black gets it right with 'Chewing Rocks' but not so much with 'Larry Goes to Space', that's pretty much the crux of it.
Put simplest, there were a lot of things wrong with 'Larry Goes to Space' but the biggest problem with this one is just that it ends and after only 250 pages. It does its job and wraps things up as it should, so it's a standalone novel that doesn't need a sequel, but Arizona City (and Ceres in general) has so much potential that it wouldn't have been difficult for Black to set other stories there. I felt that many of the characters deserved a bit more time in the spotlight and a bit more depth to their backgrounds. I understand and appreciate the old show business motto that you should 'always leave them wanting more' but there's also an eternal balance between characters, story and setting. All three of those things are fine here but the balance could have benefitted from a little more prominence given to the latter.
This is my ninth Alan Black novel but I have a feeling that it'll be the one I'll come back to most often. It feels like a book to read and re-read. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For reviews of other Alan Black novels click on the title:
Metal Boxes: Trapped Outside
Metal Boxes: Rusty Hinges
Metal Boxes: At The Edge
Larry Goes To Space
Quest for the White Wind