Regular readers will know that I've worked my way through all Alan Black's science fiction novels and a few others besides, reviewing them all here at the Nameless Zine. I didn't start until his untimely passing and I stopped for no better reason than I'd finished them all. My final one was “Titanium Texicans”, in February 2018. I'd left it until last because it looked likely to be the worst of them all but it turned out to be my personal favourite of all of his books. Go figure.
Well, almost two years on, here's another one, credited to Alan Black with D. E. Black because his wife and editor, Duann, has brought 'A Planet with No Name' into print, I believe either finishing a work that her husband had started or crafting it from ideas or outlines created with him. And, taking a deep look, it's at once very much like Alan Black's books and very unlike them.
It's like them in ways both good and bad. Like a number of Alan's books, I found the first few pages awkward and forced, in need of a rewrite. Like a number of Alan's books, I wondered how that would play out over the rest of the novel. And, like a number of Alan's books, I forgot about it entirely a couple of chapters in and couldn't put the thing down until I was done. He's probably cost me more sleep than any other author and, amazingly, he's still doing it from the other side of the grave.
Politically, this explores a lot of the same ground that Alan did, though it takes a look at the bad side of libertarianism as much as the good side. It has a fringe take on morality too, something that I also found in a few of Alan's books, not least “Empty Space”. He would write books that played in the Robert A. Heinlein sandbox of individual responsibility and then twist them just a little with a left turn to make us think about the morals of the lead character, after we've firmly taken his side.
What's odd is that it plays out much more like a western than anything that I've read from Alan. Sure, books like “Chewing Rocks” were westerns at heart, but the science fiction elements in that one were impossible to ignore, the story unfolding in large part in Arizona City, a frontier town on Ceres, the large asteroid. Here, they're far less important, meaning that the title of the book's hint at the Man with No Name is more than appropriate. There are some similarities to A Fistful of Dollars and its predecessor, Yojimbo, even if this isn't the same story.
Like those movies, it all unfolds a heck of a long way from here. On Earth, Veronica Smith was a university professor. On the planet with no name, she's an outcast. She and her husband signed up with a group of space pioneers to colonise a new planet, signed up quite literally, on a pioneer compact that was "short on law and long on freedoms". Their goal was to become farmers, getting back to the land and making an honest living with their bare hands.
So far, so good. However, her husband backed out at the last minute, so she quickly became a single woman in a project designed entirely for couples. As the story begins, she's liked by nobody in the town of ironically named town of Peaceful Junction, to the degree that everyone ignores the murder of Cal, which is outlined in the rather misleading back cover blurb.
No, it hasn't got that serious yet. Cal isn't her lover or her son, he's her robot, supposedly invulnerable but clearly not capable of taking a couple of bullets to the head. And with Cal dead, or rather destroyed beyond any fair chance of repair, Veronica decides to take her revenge on the town. How she does that is our story and it's a tough but highly enjoyable journey.
No, it doesn't lead to the moral arc we might expect, but the story does a few pirouettes to keep Veronica from turning into a serial killer. It isn't that sort of book. On one side, she's a good person at heart who finds a way to do a lot of good while she's doing bad, if we can describe it like that. On another, she does benefit from a great deal of luck, as if she had used up all her bad luck getting into this mess in the first place.
She's mostly alone in her moral ambiguity, though a couple of other folk who gravitate to her are clearly good people with highly dubious pasts making a fresh start on this planet with no name. Like most westerns, the good guys and the bad guys are easily delineated and quite impossible to mistake for each other. Even when some choose to change side, that's not a moral change, just an acknowledgement of who they're willing to support.
Like Alan Black's earlier novels, it's really hard not to enjoy this one. I only ever disliked one of his books, “Larry Goes to Space”, and that's because it was written in a style to which he wasn't suited. For all its flaws, this is engaging and immersive and I started and finished it in the same session, losing sleep in the process. Veronica isn't the deepest lead character I've ever read but I was on her side by the end of chapter one and I was there to the end, however morally dubious her choices got.
A lot of that has to do with the Blacks' ability to bring life to a frontier town and a frontier spirit. I'm not the libertarian that either author is or was, but I've never been closer to being in tune with the freedoms they like so much than when I read one of their books. I always found that with Robert Heinlein and I find it with Alan Black too, whoever's writing his books now. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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