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Metal Boxes: Trapped Outside
by Alan Black
CreateSpace, $15.00, 312pp
Published: August 2015

I'm reviewing an Alan Black novel each month at the Nameless Zine in memoriam and this one, the first sequel to his bestselling 'Metal Boxes' (review here), follows the pattern of the last few. That means that it starts a little awkwardly, though less so than usual; kicks in magnificently a few chapters in, grabbing our attention in no uncertain manner; and then keeps us awake all night, because we don't want to put it down. Suddenly it's 5am and the alarm is set for less than three hours away. Oh well, I ain't complainin'.

'Metal Boxes' told the story of Blackmon Perry Stone, a midshipman in the Emperor's space navy, as he found himself assigned to the supply ship, UEN Periodontitis, more commonly known as Ol' Toothless. If anyone wasn't already aware that Black was heavily influenced by Robert A. Heinlein, they couldn't fail to figure it out in 'Metal Boxes', which was like a mashup of a dozen of Heinlein's juveniles. I devoured it and was happy to continue on with Stone's story, which is just as eventful here, if not in the same ways.

In 'Metal Boxes', Stone had discovered and claimed ownership of a new planet, which he named after his girlfriend, a marine lieutenant. Now he's being sent back to Allie's World as its governor, which puts him in command over marines, navy and medics, not to forget a batch of civilian scientists, eager to explore a virgin world, especially as some of them have already met Jay and Peebee, his pet drascos, born on Allie's World. He's not happy with the assignment, but accepts it and does his best, even though he has to spend time outside, his agoraphobia spawned from his upbringing on board spaceships with nice solid walls.

His mood gets a little better when he discovers that Allie got there before him, her marine unit assigned to the mission, though he's professional enough not to exercise a relationship with someone who's under his command. It gets rather worse when their compound is destroyed, along with their ship in orbit and another containing a pair of cousins, arriving to inventory the planet's resources. The reason? Enemy missile.

The Empire has been at war with the Hyrocanians for years and they've apparently found their way onto Allie's World, where they've struck the first blow and made it count. Suddenly, Stone has far fewer resources to work with, whether that be people, weapons or support. They have nowhere to live, forced out onto the open plains where the remnants of the mission struggle to stay alive in an alien landscape over which the Hyrocanian threat is ever-present. They have no way to get home and no way to communicate with anyone who could help them. It doesn't help that there seems to be a traitor in their midst, who has funnelled plans and secrets to the enemy.

Anyone who's read Heinlein (or Black) won't be too surprised to find that Stone and his companions find a way not only to survive but also to strike back at the Hyrocanians. This is military sci-fi with dollops of grand pulp adventure; well drawn, if not particularly deep, characters; fantastic aliens and alien creatures; an abundance of intrigue, politics and tough decision making; believably extrapolated future tech; and a bunch of surprises to be found along the way.

The biggest problem with 'Trapped Outside' is that it ends. I don't just mean that from the perspective of wanting to keep reading after the last page is turned, but in the sense that, while it does tell a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end, it also introduces a number of elements that are not explored in this book because they're surely being kept in check for the next one. That's especially the case with the various revelations Stone makes about the Hyrocanians, their food supply and the condition of the ships they command. If you're the sort of reader who always wants answers to questions raised, I would think that you'll want to pick this up along with the third book in the series, 'Rusty Hinges', as I'm expecting a number of answers in that book to many of the questions raised here. At least, I hope so!

A lesser problem is the inevitability factor. This is the sort of old school adventure novel where we know that the good guys are going to win in the end, however damaged they get on the way, so tension isn't as high as it perhaps should be. At least Black isn't afraid to kill off prominent characters, though he clearly doesn't want to do too much of that. While Stone was always going to make it through the book, I wasn't always sure that other favourite characters were going to join him. Certainly, not everyone makes it out in one piece, the medical supplies still available once things go to hell in a handbasket not being close to sufficient. Then again, these marines are notably tough, even for marines; I particularly grinned at the antics of one who's lost a hand but uses the stump as a viable weapon.

While the 'Metal Boxes' books aren't the deepest, most insightful old school science fiction out there, I'd suggest that they're close to the most adventurous, action-packed and traditional on the market. Fans of the Heinlein juveniles will find these highly familiar, though a little weaker on the engineering front and a little stronger on the violence. The Heinlein focuses on individual responsibility, duty and always doing the right thing even when temptation and convenience suggest otherwise are all present and prominent. That's especially notable here in the treatment of the traitor, once identified, who is not summarily shot in the head but arrested, given a trial by jury and the decision accepted. The inevitable end comes in a highly appropriate way.

So, thank you, Alan Black, for costing me more sleep. At least I'm writing this at the end of one month, so I can leap straight into book three at the beginning of the next and not lose my review rhythm. I'm eager to see if those answers I'm seeking are going to be forthcoming early in 'Rusty Hinges'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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