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Starship Repo
by Patrick S. Tomlinson
Tor, $18.99, 336pp
Published: May 2019

My introduction to the books of stand-up comedian Patrick S. Tomlinson came with a novel called 'Gate Crashers', which I reviewed last year. It was fun, even if the author was trying too hard at points to emulate Douglas Adams, an approach that left it a little awkwardly inbetween the serious story it deserved to be and the laugh-a-minute riot he may have envisaged it as. I'm happy to say that he found much more comfortable middle ground in this sort of sequel, the humour still there but with less serious material to conflict with it.

It isn't a sequel in the sense that the story continues on, but it is set in the same universe and features a guest appearance from at least one primary character from the previous book. To sum up far too quickly, 'Gate Crashers' was a first contact book. We go out there, we find aliens and we get into a major spot of trouble, not entirely through our own fault. This book takes place a little later, when we've become part of that wider universe, albeit as the unpredictable new fish.

The humour is apparent in the choice of protagonist, a young Earth girl who goes by the name of Firstname Lastname, because of a clerical error that, of course, is never fixed. She arrives on the space station known as Junktion, on a seventeen-day pass, and promptly finds success as a small-time thief of the local equivalent of cars, using a surprising talent for hacking, given that she's a teenager on the run, and supplying them to Soolie the Fin, who is as illicit as you might imagine.

However, her success attracts eyes and it isn't too long before she's caught in a honeypot trap and blackmailed onto a team of barely legal repo men. I say "men" but, of course, we're on a space station packed to the seams with wild and wonderful species from all over the galaxy so this team naturally follows suit.

The boss is Loritt Chessel, who might seem to be one creature but is really a small ones who combine quite literally together into a recognisable form, like all Nehilexu. The pilot is a floating brain in a jar called, like every other member of his race, Fenax. The engineer is a giant transgender crab by the name of Sheer. That leaves Jrill, a Turemok, the villains of the first book, and a Lividite called Hashin. They work from the Goes Where I'm Towed, a ship so stunningly nondescript that most people don't even notice it.

Fortunately, everyone speaks English, because it's easy to learn and some traditions are universal, such as watching 'Die Hard' at Christmas. However, not everyone speaks it easily, in the sense that First's roommate, Quarried Themselves, is a Grenic or slab of sentient rock and so does everything very slowly indeed. I'm still intrigued by the Grenic soap operas that First has become addicted to, even though they're clearly here only to seem impossible and to be a pun on "rock opera".

What follows is a lot of fun. I liked First and I felt for her, a fish very much out of water but with a talent for life that goes beyond mere survival. She has a habit of making good impressions, even when they're unlikely. The Grenic isn't the only unlikely friendship she makes, the tentacle monster in the sewers who loves classical music, being another memorable one. I liked a lot of the way the team grew together over time and shared experiences.

There are negative sides though. This is so episodic a novel that it's more of a connected set of short stories, almost like it was designed to be made into a TV show, with each episode already distinct but some overarching bits left for a season arc. Also, while I enjoyed the characters and their work, it's pretty generic stuff that doesn't leave any room at all for anything of real substance. I was torn between missing the serious science fiction that underpinned "Gate Crashers" and enjoying that this didn't take itself at all seriously.

Of course, that means that it's fluff and that's okay, except for how tailored the fluff is. We're on a space station in alien space—First is literally the first human to ever set foot on it—but everything seems to tie back to very recognisable Earth culture. Never mind 'Die Hard', there's an '80s hair band from Michigan called the Wolverines who have taken the galaxy by storm and a whole slew of references, from ship names to everyday ideas, seem to be part of a universe in which humans dominate, not one in which they've just showed up and are starting to showcase what they can do.

This extends to social commentary, such as the inclusion of a character (or the programmed avatar of a character) called Fonald Plump, a rich celebrity who goes bankrupt a lot and runs a giant spacegoing casino. I get that the author is a stand-up comedian and I'm not going to say I didn't grin at some of his social commentary but this is pretty cheap and the book is not at all improved by its inclusion.

What that leaves is something that's neither believable on a grand scale nor ambitious in any real sense. It's just fluff and that may or may not be what you're looking for. It's an easy read, the sort of thing that's fun while it lasts but vanishes from the mind soon after it's done. I hope the next book, because I'm sure there'll be one, brings a little of the substance of volume one back but with the characters from volume two. Oh, and let's aim at some level of believability. Tomlinson has the talent. He just needs to choose to employ it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Patrick S Tomlinson click here

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