In January 2017, Alan Black, a successful local author, passed away. I had bought a few of his books before he died, which he had kindly signed for me, but I was shocked to realise that I hadn't yet read any. Given that I had learned a great deal over a number of years watching him selling his books from the next table over or from his polite, astute and modest advice, I decided to read what he'd written. After all, he predominantly wrote science fiction and he could honestly throw '#1 bestselling author' on all his covers, having topped the Amazon chart in his genre, I believe more than once. He ought to be worth reading, right?
So, in February, 2017, I read his 2014 novel, 'Empty Space', in a single sitting, and reviewed it at the Nameless Zine in March. While there were some odd little things here and there that would certainly have been improved by a professional editor, I had a blast with it. Who needs sleep anyway? At that point, it seemed like an obvious choice to pick up all his other science fiction and fantasy novels from his wife, DuAnn, who has kept selling his books at events and will continue to bring new ones into print, and work my way through the lot. And now I've done that; with the exception of October, when events stole my life, I've reviewed an Alan Black book each month and this sadly marks the point when I run out.
Ironically, the last lesson I'll learn from Alan is that first appearances can be deceptive. While I started out with the three I initially owned, I read them in no particular order. After I stocked up, I see that I prioritised the ones that looked most promising over the ones that didn't. Now, I may have been correct in one instance ('Larry Goes to Space' is absolutely as silly as it looks) but not with those I left even longer. With the benefit of hindsight, I'd suggest that 'Steel Walls and Dirt Drops' was a heck of a lot of fun, 'Chewing Rocks' was the best yet and, wow, 'Titanium Texicans' with its cheesy title, uninviting synopsis and underwhelming cover art, is even better still. I dare to suggest that the novel I left until last is surely the best of them all.
How good was it, you might ask? Well, I started it at 2.00am and still read it in a single go, chuckling to myself frequently and trying not to wake up the better half as I did so. It's a gem.
It's also the quintessential Alan Black novel, the only thing missing being a military element, though it's fair to say that the discipline instilled in young Tasso Menzies by his grandfather has echoes of that. He's a good lad, a tough one and a dedicated one, who begins the novel burying that grandfather, even though it takes him all day to dig a deep enough hole in the rock of their family farm on the twin-sunned planet of Saronno and there are a lot of dangerous creatures about, like the jack o'lanterns that killed his mother. He's almost seventeen but alone in the world. His plans are simply to get on with the job, to do his family proud by harvesting the chiamra crop that kept them solvent. His mistake is to notify his estranged uncle Bruce in Landing City.
Bruce Menzies promptly has Tasso fly into Landing City on the grounds that Saronno law requires him to act as the boy's guardian until he turns eighteen. Tasso doesn't like it in the slightest but was brought up to respect his elders, so he does what he's asked. He likes it even less when he discovers that Bruce has palmed him off, on a passing freighter, providing them with a court order to take him on a 'training cruise' that will last past his 18th birthday, an important detail given that, if he's not on his family farm on that day, he'll lose the land.
And so Tasso, who has known nothing except an austere life with family on their remote farm, suddenly finds a new life forced upon him, on the 'Escorpión Rojo', one of a number of ships operated by an extended family of Texans and Mexicans, the Rojos. To suggest that this promptly exposes Tasso's naïveté in outrageous fashion is a brutal understatement. He continually blunders from one incident to the next, beginning with his discovery of hot sauce in his first taco. However, this young greenhorn isn't only an easy target for ridicule; he's polite, he's hard-working and he's inventive. After all, he's been brought up to be able to strip down and repair anything he uses and he reads operating manuals for fun.
Now, that isn't why Captain Lilianna Rojo puts him to work in Aunt Aggie's Attic (that's because he's never had any official education, so they have no baseline for him), but she couldn't have had picked a better place if she'd tried. It's a huge deck full of expensive crap, 'stuff that's too valuable to throw away, but don't have any need for right now' and his sole supervisor, Tio Gabe, appears to be a senile old man who spends his time asleep. As he's still very much a stranger in a strange land, he's in heaven cleaning up the place on his own and that leads to the first in a series of synchronicitous moments that allow him to change the culture on the 'Escorpión Rojo' just as much as they change him.
I'll tell you how, because that would provide a much better pitch for this novel than the blurb on the back cover. He literally bumps into a lady named Cherry, who runs a women's clothing store on the ship, so he helps her carry stuff inside. There he hears that she's low on ribbons because of a short order, so points out that he uncovered an extruder in the attic and fixed it up. He's not quite so clear, of course; he found a Thurmand Corporation plasti-cellulose extruder that was missing a trydratic surtran coupler, so he pulled one off a broken gammic roll frame arm attachment. What it all means is that he brings it into the shop, makes every ribbon Cherry might want and more, all for free because the device recycles packing material, creates a sensation and ends up getting hired on during the time he's not in the attic.
While this sort of glorious accident can seem a little convenient, especially when it happens over and over, it's easy to argue that, if Tasso Menzies wasn't going to make a difference, he wouldn't warrant his own novel. The fact is that Alan Black writes this sort of scene perfectly. Tasso's modesty and naïveté are perfectly handled for us readers, if not for the characters he unknowingly pisses off in the process. Black makes all these moments seem completely natural and Tasso's blundering from one such to the next, blissfully unaware how much of an impact he's actually making, is magical reading.
Now, once we're moving (and this first moment happens just short of a hundred pages in), we know just where we'll end up and sure enough, this leads to that and that leads to the other and all the plot strands that we know Black didn't forget about get wrapped up in similar style. What happens is rarely surprising and how it happens is even less so; what's surprising is that every one of them is a pure joy to read. I have every intention of taking a fresh run through this one soon, even though nothing will be surprising then because I've already read it. The surprises don't matter.
One thing that does matter is that there really isn't a downside this time out. Many of Alan's books have a little flaw here and there, usually something that really should have been taken care of by a professional editor, but the end results remained characterful, action-packed and, most importantly, fun. I'm at a loss to figure out what could have been done differently here: it starts out right, it flows well throughout and it ends as it should. It's a blast from moment first to moment last and it's surely the most consistent of the eleven Alan Black books that I've read thus far. It's certainly the one I'm going to recommend first and most, though 'Chewing Rocks', 'Steel Walls and Dirt Drops' and the first 'Metal Boxes' novel will quickly follow off my tongue.
What's next, after eleven books in twelve months, is a wait. As I understand it, Alan had completed some novels which have not yet been published and had partly completed others. DuAnn will finish these up and bring them into print and I'll happily snap them up as she does so. So, while I don't know what and I don't know when, look forward to more Alan Black books reviewed here at the Nameless Zine. ~~ Hal C F Astell