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Gate Crashers
by Patrick S. Tomlinson
Tor, $18.99, 416pp
Published: June 2018

'The only thing as infinite and expansive as the universe,' explains the back cover, 'is humanity's unquestionable ability to make bad decisions.' Yes, this novel is a clear attempt to echo the work of Douglas Adams.

At points, it's incredibly obvious. For those who didn't recognise the scene two pages in, in which a spaceship's computer attempts to figure out what to do when something unexpected happens, neat shifts of perspective like, 'Jeffery looked at the man in much the same way as a cornstalk views an approaching combine,' or the fact that there's a character called Marvin who's only in the book to be told to go and get things, as clear homages to the master, author Patrick S. Tomlinson goes so far as to include the immortal phrase, 'Don't panic!' in a particularly important section of 'First Contact for Dummies'. Yeah, Tomlinson is a Douglas Adams fan and he's just aching to point that out to us.

Some of it is done pretty well. I appreciated the setup, in which an interplanetary exploration vessel, travelling towards the stars at a cosmic snail's pace, discovers an alien artifact floating in space and recognises it as a key moment for the human race. Of course, the crew attempt to leave with it, which doesn't work out too well, and then attempt to disassemble it, which has rather better results. This sparks a whole set of discoveries which are put to great use by a wunderkind tech back on Earth by the name of Felix Fletcher, discoveries that come soon and often, to the degree that I wonder how far into this book I can go without providing spoilers.

The answer is not far at all, because Felix figures out what the artifact is about 75 pages in and I refuse to spoil that, though I can mention a few things that come later because the whole point of the book, as explained in the back cover blurb, is that mankind, travelling further than it ever has before, bumps into aliens. Sure, the artifact comes first, but the aliens inevitably follow because, to return to that blurb, it's there for a reason and the 'aliens are awfully fond of that structure'.

The best aspect of the book is the character development. It doesn't take long to figure out that our key players are Felix Fletcher, a couple of spaceship captains and an alien by the name of D'armic. Those two captains are also as different as they could be, one being the polite, calm and capable Allison Ridgeway, in command of the Magellan, that exploration vessel, and the other being the ultra-macho Zap Brannigan-esque Maximus Tiberius, the surname clearly another homage, given that we end up in a whole slew of situations that feel like they could have been episodes of the original 'Star Trek'. There are a bunch of worthy supporting characters too, both back on Earth and out there in space. The aliens are far more clichéd but, given the approach, that's relatively fine.

The worst aspect of the book is the humour, but I need to clarify that. For all the Douglas Adams influences, it simply keeps forgetting to be funny. I don't mean that the jokes are awful, though there are a couple of notably cringeworthy chestnuts (and Tomlinson is a stand-up comedian, so he knows that); I mean that this is really a traditional science fiction novel dealing with the traditional concept of first contact that's only occasionally the comedy that the cover promises. The tagline above the title on the front cover is, 'In space, nobody can see you screw up.' That's really unfair to the novel and its potential readers in a number of different ways.

I won't explain all of them, but the most obvious is that people reading this for the comedy will laugh out loud at sections but then get bored and drift away because those sections aren't continuous, while those people who want a regular read will probably get fed up with the occasional gags. I appreciated both approaches, but wish that Tomlinson had figured out which one he wanted to go with and stuck with it throughout. This could have been a fantastic comedy or a solid drama, but it's lessened by the attempt to be both.

I can't mention most of what I want to mention because so much would constitute spoilers, but I will raise the alien race known as Lividites, probably the most original element with a Douglas Adams edge. The Lividites are erroneously named because they're far from angry beings. In fact, they're so far from angry that they can't actually experience any emotions without chemical assistance, thus prompting any Lividite to carry a regular supply of the standard emotions with them at all times. Tomlinson understands why this is a cool idea and he puts it to good use at various points within the book.

Really, like so many divisive books, I don't need to go any further because this review will either have turned you off 'Gate Crashers' or made you want to read it. He has other books out, including a trilogy by the name of 'Chronicles of a Dead Earth' and that may be a better place to start, because it looks like it eschews the comedy and concentrates on telling a good story. I haven't read it but I'm intrigued. I have a feeling I'll like it far more than I did this, because it appears to know what it wants to be and Tomlinson clearly has the talent to pull it off. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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