Tuesday, 30 December 2003

Brian Stableford: The Omega Expedition (2002)

Edition: Tor, 2002
Review number: 1206

I had high expectations for the culminating novel in one of my favourite science fiction series of recent years. Apart from anything else, it includes many characters from the earlier stories, and promises to wrap up the story of the human quest for emortality (not immortality, just immune to aging and disease.)

The main part of the story is, like that of Dark Ararat, told from the point of view of a man recently revived from cryogenic suspension. But Madoc Tamlin is not someone who was voluntarily frozen at the beginning of an interstellar voyage; he is one of the longest frozen survivors of those whose fate was entrusted to one of those companies which already exist that freeze the dead (or, in this case, dying) to preserve them until a cure is found for what killed them. Tamlin is one of the characters from Inherit the Earth, but he doesn't remember when and why he was frozen. No one really has much interest in reviving the thousands of bodies in this state, but Tamlin has been thawed as a test run for a much more famous frozen body, the financier Adam Zimmerman, whose fortune endowed the foundation which centuries later made the crucial breakthrough which made emortality possible.

The Omega Expedition is, unfortunately, the weakest novel in the series. For me, the disappointments began with the introduction, a brief reprise of the other five novels. Something I liked about this series of self-contained novels is the way that it seems to consist of two trilogies, the second of which apparently goes back and fills in the gaps. It seemed an unusual way to organise a series, but it is definitely interesting and effective. However, it turns out that this was the result of the way that the publisher commissioned the novels, rather than Stableford's initial idea.

This is a small beginning to what to me was a whole series of disappointments. The first section is the story of Adam Zimmerman's life, as retold by historian Mortimer Grey, the central character of The Fountains of Youth. To me, this section seemed sentimentalised and dull, though it's title suggests that it may be aimed by Grey at children. (The phrase "children of humankind" could also refer to the various factions of post-humans, and it is unlikely that small children would have much interest in the philosophy of Heidegger.) It is strange that such a famous author as Grey is supposed to be turns out to be so uninteresting to read, though as it also would be odd if people whose bodies are full of nano-technological computer enhancements still thought in straightforward prose, this could be seen as a problem connected with reducing his words to a linear form. The main central section, the narrative of Madoc Tamlin, is much more interesting to read, and he of course would be more accustomed to writing in this format (though actually describing exciting events must help!).

Tamlin's narrative, however, is not without its own problems. As has already been mentioned, Stableford has already used the device of an individual waking up from cryogenic suspension; it is useful to the writer because the narrator would need to have many aspects of the world in which they find themselves explained, making this a natural part of the scenario and removing one of the biggest problems science fiction has as a genre - integrating the explanation of the background with a realistic narrative. This time round, though, the idea is used too clumsily to be convincing. While there are successful science fiction novels which have long sections of lecturing in them (Stapledon's Last and First Men comes to mind), this is not one of them. The action, when it does occur, is only the precursor to further lengthy discussions. Stableford has already in this very series shown he can impart a great deal of information without resorting to such dull exposition, so why does he suddenly start doing it here?

It is always a pity when the quality of a series drops; where the novels form a linked story, this is generally around the middle, and happens because the plot is insufficiently taut. Stableford avoided this by having a series made up of independent novels, but that makes the disappointment of this culminating volume even more acute. The cause? I suspect that he was keen to move on to something new; he just had to get this novel completed first.

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