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WesternSFA


Salvaged
by Madeleine Roux
Ace, $16.00, 368pp
Published: October 2019

It's the tone rather than the story of 'Salvaged' that ended up staying with me. It's a dark and claustrophobic book, most of it unfolding on a spaceship called the Brigantine, which only had a crew of five when it ran and is now about to be salvaged. It's as much survival horror as it is science fiction, so 'Alien' is the obvious comparison to haul out.

What's different is the type of alien that's taken hold of the Brigantine, a hive mind that expands through parasitic glowing mushrooms. In 'Alien', the crew were human and the alien took them down one by one. Here, that was done before we started the book but we move into 'Matango' territory and find the crew of alien-infected humans aiming to take down the one human who shows up on a salvage mission. The originality can be found in the idea that some of the crew are still fighting, even after it's clearly too late for them, like they're victims of possession struggling with the demons inside them.

Our lead is that one human on a salvage mission. She's Rosalyn Dever and she works for Merchantia Solutions, a space salvage company, as a way to escape her previous life, which isn't as bad as that might sound. She merely wants away from her family, which is rich and powerful, and live her own way. The catch to succeeding is outlined in the fantastic opening line: "Rosalyn had endured disappointing birthdays before, but never one in ankle-deep corpse sludge." At least she's in a hazmat suit.

We're initially not sure whether Rosalyn is good at her job or not. She's at the point of being fired when we first encounter her, but she's a lead with responsibility over others and none of them seem to be a shining example for her to follow. In fact, she's part of a two man crew on the Brigantine job, but Dave Walters proves so incapable of dealing with unexpected changes that he quickly writes himself out of the mission and the book. Rosalyn's on her own.

There is a wider mystery in play, but it's not that important in the grand scheme of things. The reason Rosalyn has been cleaning up corpses lately is because there's been an odd spate of apparently unrelated incidents that all play out in the same way. Someone on a small spaceship crew turns down the oxygen and turns up the heat. Everyone dies, including that someone, and the resulting mess is left for the salvage crew to take care of.

That's an interesting mystery, but it vanishes from our minds when we get to the Brigantine, because Madeleine Roux introduces us to the real story with style and substance. Rosalyn boards the ship to find that the floor's sticky and the walls are all covered with a glowing fungus. The servitor, or ship's mobile computer, has also been reprogrammed, but not until after the salvage signal was sent, which makes no sense. Oxygen levels are at six per cent and nobody could be alive on the ship, but the systems show four live bodies.

It could be argued that the story really begins at this point, seventy or so pages in, with Rosalyn trying to resolve these inconsistencies as one of the crew members wanders in, without a helmet but with parts of his head missing and a pulsing web of blue growth coating him, to greet the new visitor with, "Hello. Have you come to join us?" This would be an easy novel to adapt into a film and I'd want to see that just for this scene, which is reminiscent of Jack Torrance's "Here's Johnny" but with a number of added levels of depth.

I don't want to venture much further into the story, because this is when we start asking a lot of questions that the rest of the book should answer.

The fact that not all the crew have succumbed to the control of this fungus monster from outer space seems fair because the back cover blurb highlights that the Brigantine's captain, Edison Aries, is working with Rosalyn to take it down, even though he's still infected himself. That he's able to maintain enough control over himself and his body obviously makes her job easier, but the possibility that he may not remain as able for long makes it even harder.

As we've already been told that, of the five crew members, four are showing up as alive on the scanners, it can't be too much of a spoiler to point out that the reason for that is because the fungus is keeping them alive as part of its hive mind consciousness. The simplest extrapolation tells us that the four are likely to have different levels of control over themselves. Now you see why this is a little like 'Alien' in reverse: four potential monsters on the hunt for one human.

As I mentioned at the outset, the tone outweighs the story here for me. The threat inherent in this situation is palpable to begin with, but the need to constantly be sure, at every moment in time, which crew members are fighting the monster, so are still on Rosalyn's side, and which have finally given up control to the fungus, so are trying to enlist her into the fungoid Borg, is a real tension builder.

Sure, the story isn't bad, though it's hardly the deepest mystery I've ever read. Roux lets us on in little details here and there that hint at answers. She also complicates things at suitable points with revelations that make us reevaluate what's going on. However, we're not going to worry too much about Couer d'Alene Station when we've never been there and Rosalyn is stuck in a hazmat suit while a sentient alien mushroom is sending minions to kill her.

If the relatively simple story is the weakest aspect of this novel, while an admirably claustrophobic tone is the strongest, the characters sit somewhere in between. Excepting a few colleagues early on who don't really factor into the story proper, Rosalyn Dever is the only human being in the novel and she isn't exactly without flaws or self-inflicted torments. Of course, the doubt cast early on about whether she's any good at her job is quickly dispelled, because, if she was incapable, she'd have died quickly along with her idiot partner and we'd all be part mushroom by now.

I liked this book but I thought I'd like it a lot more. Going in, it looked interesting. Early on, it's very promising. When the half-human half-fungus Rayan Yasin shows up and things really get going, it's a joy. Looking back, it's still pretty decent but it struggles a little with the restrictions it sets for itself. You can only give so much character to someone who's lost control to a space fungus. You can only keep so much tension when there's a single human character on whom to focus. And you can only conjure up so much mystery when the majority of the book is spent in effective isolation. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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