I missed my self-imposed monthly Alan Black deadline in October because every spare moment was given up to sleep, but I'm back on track and will hopefully stay there until I run out of published books. By then, DuAnn, Alan's wife, may well have got something new into print.
'Larry Goes to Space' is a standalone sci-fi novel and it has a completely different feel to anything that I've read so far from Alan. The 'Metal Boxes' books are all consistent military sf with a major nod to Robert A. Heinlein, as was another standalone novel, 'Empty Space'. I'm well aware that the author wasn't a one trick pony, because I've also reviewed a fantasy, 'Quest for the White Wind', and a comedic thriller, 'Chasing Harpo', each a capable entry into its genre. This, however, explores science fiction with a completely different style.
For a start, it's as much a comedy as it is a science fiction novel, the story a cheap and cheerful one that could be called threadbare if it wasn't elevated by humour. That humour is oddly British, though, given that we begin on a farm in Kansas and find our way to a different planet. It's hard not to reveal that when the title itself could be considered a spoiler.
One aspect to the comedy is relentless personification, which is highly reminiscent of 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. This isn't because all the gadgetry is endowed with flawed artificial intelligence, it's because the story seems to play second fiddle to the many asides that Black makes. He does so for laughs too, rather than to provide some sort of insight; when Larry's fridge proves obstinate, it's not because it's a smart fridge having an existential crisis, it's just a way for Black to write a paragraph about a fridge being obstinate. After he surprises his hero with the revelation that the cows on his farm are telepathic, we move on and nothing more is made out of the concept. The joke is told.
The other aspect used over and over in a very similar way is metaphor. Every time something happens, Black launches off into a side story that Larry's brain sees as the same thing. This could be seen as a downhome American angle to the laughs but it didn't play that way to me. It reminded me of Ronnie Corbett's legendary jokes, which would wander and meander all over the place before they reached an inevitably underwhelming conclusion, as the whole point of the exercise was the wandering and meandering; the joke didn't matter at all. Here, the plot doesn't seem to be of much importance for the longest time, but Black's wandering and meandering does a great job at painting character.
The only catch to that is that Larry appears to be a dumb backwoods yokel until, well, he isn't, at which point he's a bona fide hero worthy of his trip to space. He certainly has little interest in anything except beer, women and his dog, Ol' Bucky, until the aliens show up over his farm. They strongly resemble foxes but their translation tools have limitations, so Larry has to name certain things. Key members of the alien crew promptly become Betty and Veronica, Bob and Ginger or Scooter and Jughead but, for the race itself, he thinks back to college literature classes to pluck out the Teumessian fox which Zeus flung into the heavens.
For all those American names, that trip to space is ripped straight out of British comedy sci-fi television. The novel begins with fourteen Teumessian spaceships aiming to enlist Larry's help to save their home planet from an oppressive alien race. I won't spoil the whole book, but let's just say that part of his salvation plan involves playing live action Minesweeper to the death. If that's not a 'Red Dwarf' episode yet, it surely has to be soon.
The insightful part of the book is in why this needs to happen. For all that these aliens possess advanced space-faring technology and look like foxes, they're peaceful vegetarians who are scared stiff of Larry because he's a meat-eater. In fact, the regular Teumessian populace couldn't even imagine visiting Earth for that very reason, so they sent some of their insane population instead. Now, there's some real cultural depth to this meaning of 'insane' and Black has fun tasking Larry with messing with that, but I absolutely adore the idea that only the least well regarded of a race become the ones able to save it.
Black has a little fun with xenophobia too, these foxes not only scared stiff of Larry the meat-eater but not too fond of hanging around close to him on account of that meat-eating smell. Of course, he wins them over in the end because that's how novels like this have to progress, but there is some substance in how that happens.
What I wasn't expecting was how near the novel kept getting to erotica territory. It never gets there, the closest being a brief scene that was excised after beta readers thought it too graphic and which is included instead with a set of 'outtakes' after the novel proper finishes. Given that for fully half the book, Larry is surrounded only by fox-like aliens but conversations about sex only increase, I often felt that this was about to transform into furry porn. It never does, so don't panic.
The other surprise is how such a light-hearted romp takes some rather dark turns every once in a while. Minesweeper deathmatches are inevitably brutal and there's a point where Larry makes a horrific discovery that echoes an angle Black also took in the 'Metal Boxes' series but seems all the more horrific for showing up in a comedy.
All in all, I found 'Larry Goes to Space' an enjoyable if light read and there are some glorious moments to experience, but it's surely the least substantial of his books that I've read thus far. I wonder where his other standalone sf novels will fit in his bibliography. Tune in next month to start finding out! ~~ Hal C F Astell