I bought my first Alan Black book because he was a friendly gentleman who talked a great deal of sense and I was intrigued by the story behind how ‘Metal Boxes’ became an Amazon bestseller. It’s all about the reviews, budding authors, it’s all about the reviews.
However, I never got round to reading it and I wonder if I assumed something about its quality from its outer appearance and subconsciously hid from it. But Alan Black didn’t advertise himself as a cover designer and layout artiste. He called himself a writer and, with two of his books now under my belt, I want to stand outside my front door and shout that to the world.
When I reviewed ‘Empty Space’ last month (review here), I mentioned that I started it in the wee hours of the morning and I was utterly unable to put it down, finishing it in the same session not long before I needed to get back up again. It enthralled me, captivating my attention and my imagination in a way that I remembered from my very first experiences with golden age science fiction. He made me feel young again, ready to go out and experience the world. I remember grinning after it was over and not wanting to put it down, even though I was done.
Well, ‘Metal Boxes’ is even better. I did manage to put it down once so that I could sleep and get up for work in the morning, but I finished it on the second session, even though I had to refill the bath with hot water twice so I didn’t freeze. If you’re reading reviews of sci-fi novels at the Nameless Zine, you’re going to love this book, so don’t be dissuaded by the cover. Just dive in and make sure you have plenty of time free to finish it. Sadly you can’t thank Alan any more but you can thank his wife, DuAnn, who will be continuing to bring his next novels into print and selling them at events across the valley. I, for one, will be buying everything I don’t have when I see her next.
Like ‘Empty Space’, ‘Metal Boxes’ is clearly influenced by Robert Heinlein’s juveniles, a term which only gets more inappropriate with each year that passes. In fact, this could be seen as a sort of riff on Heinlein’s greatest hits. The hero feels like he could have been borrowed from ‘Citizen of the Galaxy’, thrown into ‘Space Cadet’, sidelined into ‘Tunnel in the Sky’, expanded into ‘The Star Beast’ and finally returned to ‘Between Planets’. It has to be said that he’s also a Stone, so what Americans know as ‘The Rolling Stones’ and Brits like me read as ‘Space Family Stone’ comes into play too. However, while this is emphatically Heinlein-influenced, it’s never derivative and the author moulds these elements into a story all his own.
That heroic Stone is Blackmon Perry Stone, who also goes by Trey in the trader culture in which he grew up, a nod to his place in the pecking order, something that he hides while finishing up training in the first chapter and taking up his first assignment as a midshipman in the United Empire space navy in the second. Unlike the hero of ‘Empty Space’, he doesn’t finish top of his class and actually comes close to being kicked out, but he works hard and thinks outside the box. The Navy merely believes that he needs to do a lot better at mathematics before he’ll be able to go places, so they dump him onto the U.E.N.S. Periodontitis, a vast warehouse ship colloquially known as Ol’ Toothless. Its job is to float behind the ships of the line, ready to re-supply them with whatever they might need. His job is to play a small part in keeping those supplies flowing to the right places and make that so.
Of course, a boring assignment doesn’t make a boring book. Black has ideas for Stone that build magnificently over hundreds of pages, many interactions with other characters and a powerful plot progression. The care with which he crafts this is admirable. For instance, while Stone is waiting for the shuttle to Ol’ Toothless, he manages to get into a confrontation with four space marines, each much larger than he is, that sets at least four plot strands into motion, not that we necessarily realise that at the time. We see it merely as character building as, while he does survive the encounter, he’s the lowest ranked officer there and he ends up having to get the luggage of all the other officers waiting on board. This is a very different pecking order than he’s used to, but he’s able to roll with the punches and learn as he goes.
I could happily go on and on about how the story moves forward, but it’s an episodic creature that deserves to be experienced, so I’ll cut my synopsis short. It could be easily serialised into a set of short stories and, given that a good deal of the charm is in the dialogue, adapted to a fantastic radio show. Of course, what we’d miss with that approach are the visuals and some aspects, such as the pair of alien creatures that show up relatively late, would have to be seen rather than heard. The radio angle shouldn’t be dismissed; this is old school space opera and I can easily picture families gathered around the wireless captivated by the latest episode of Stone’s radio show. There were points where I, simply reading the book, reacted to what was going on with a gripped fist or a vocal ‘yes!’ and that would be emphasised on radio where the pace is set and you can’t speed up your reading to see what happens next.
It’s easy to see the worst aspect of the book, because that’s what sits outside it on the cover. However, I can’t ignore some problems within. There’s so much going on, for instance, that we’re swept along by the primary plotline and so lose the opportunity to enjoy many of the others that could have grown up on the sidelines. This sweep also means that we experience the many characters very much as Stone experiences them, which is to say that many become integral parts of his life, only to vanish entirely when that life changes.
I can’t avoid Stone’s age either, because he graduates at fifteen and surely doesn’t progress too far from there by the end of the book, but he’s able to keep it together incredibly well for someone so young. To be fair, he’s an advanced young man because of the station in life to which he was born, and he is given many flaws, not least the inexperience of which he never loses sight. However, there are points where he seems over-accomplished, appropriate only given the influences. Readers who didn’t grow up with Heinlein (yes, they exist, as painful a fate as that is to imagine) may find this too convenient and too much of a stretch. The romantic relationship is another aspect that may seem wrong to some because of his age, but it played fine to me. I wonder why Black didn’t solve these problems, though, by simply making him eighteen.
It’s not so easy to pick the best aspect, because there are too many to choose from. The sweep of the book is one because we go a heck of a long way from page 1 to page 350 and it’s surprising, even after having read it, to think about just how far. It adds to the variety though. While we spend much of our time on Ol’ Toothless, we also find ourselves in open space, on an alien planet and on a couple of very different space stations. The characters are all consistently engaging and varied, if all drawn very much in the Heinlein juvenile character mould. Even on Ol’ Toothless, we spend time with both navy and marines, as well as officers of almost every rank. We also meet citizens of the empire, members of Stone’s trading family and a member of the Empire’s Military Investigation Service who must still be trying to figure out if he’s happy that he met Stone or not. I haven’t named any of these because there are too many to bring up and it would be hard to pick which to highlight.
Even with all these positive aspects, which combine to drive this story forward, I would have to plump for the conversations. Usually, when I praise dialogue, I’m thinking of some particularly great line or maybe a short back and forth. That’s not the case here, because it’s never about any single line; the joy is found in how Black has those lines interact and grow. His dialogue breeds glorious conversations that work like magic. Of the many aspects that combine to make this a thoroughly enjoyable pulp read, the conversations are what would hurt the most to lose.
So, if you’re a Heinlein fan, this is a book to buy and read, pop onto the shelf for a few years, then pull down and read again. I go back to the Heinlein juveniles every decade or so and ‘Metal Boxes’ feels like it should have the same sort of shelf life. I know I’ll be picking up a copy for my mother, who introduced me to science fiction through, among others, the Heinlein juveniles, one of the best places to start. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to talk about it with her, but she’s six thousand miles away and she doesn’t have a copy. Yet. That’s a problem I can fix.
If you’ve never read Heinlein or other similar books of the era, this may feel old fashioned to you. You’ll still be entertained but you may find yourself a little confused too, not least by the sheer optimism of the thing. The good guys win, the bad guys get caught and the hero gets the girl, just as they did back in the golden age.
Only you can know which camp you’re in. I know I’m firmly in the camp with the Heinlein readers, which is why I’ll be back for the sequels. ‘Metal Boxes’ is the first in a series of that name, currently succeeded by ‘Trapped Outside’, ‘Rusty Hinges’ and ‘At the Edge’. ~~ Hal C F Astell