Jim C. Hines has a number of books to his name in a number of series and he has a Hugo Award to boot, as the Best Fan Writer of 2012. Oddly, I knew him, until now, entirely for his 'Striking a Pose' series, which wasn't a set of novels at all but hilarious reenactments of wildly unrealistic and often inappropriately sexualised female character poses from science fiction and fantasy book covers. His initial blog post grew quickly into a pose-off with John Scalzi and $15,000 raised for the Aicardi Syndrome Foundation.
His poses were hilarious, not least because he's a pasty white balding dude. Now I know he's hilarious too, as I had a blast with this novel, the first in the 'Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse' series. What makes it work so well is that he plays it pretty straight. The story itself, from both our perspective and that of its characters, is serious. What underpins it is even more serious and, as this is outlined on the front flap of the dust jacket, it surely can't be seen as a spoiler. This is all about unintentional genocide, folks. How funny is that? Well, it isn't funny at all, which is why Hines doesn't go there. Instead, he injects the humour into the details.
For instance, the race wiped out is ours. An alien race called the Krakau visited us in order to invite us to join their growing alliance, but accidentally infected us instead with a plague that turns us into zombie-like creatures, and so quickly backstepped it out of our vicinity and tried to quietly figure out how to fix us. It can't be an accident that the home planet of the Krakau is Dobranok, which translates from the Polish as 'good night'. And no, that's not a stretch, given that Krakau is how the Poles pronounce the name of their capital city, even if the spelling is different.
What they've done, by the time this book begins, is figure out a way to 'rebirth' humans, to take a feral example and put it through a process that turns them into an intelligent creature. It doesn't fix them, it turns them into an entirely new person, but it's a start. And, as we discover in the opening pages, these rebirthed humans are under the belief that they destroyed their own species and so are thankful to the Krakau for giving them another shot. Disagreeing with the very cover blurb is a neat way to set us up with a conflict from the very first page.
Things get funny when we discover that rebirthed humans choose their own names from a suggested list, not knowing who had them last or what gender they were. So Marilyn Monroe is male while Wolfgang Mozart is female. Oh, and the Krakau, who are tubular octopi, choose human names too, but they select them from our only universal language: music. Hence, Captain Brandenburg Concerto and Admiral Pachelbel Canon. These names continue to amuse as the book runs on and Hines digs deep. I wonder how many readers recognise the name of Anna May Wong. Well, look her up. She was amazing.
Another opportunity for humour is the ridiculous but still believable nature of the setup. Our heroine is Marion Adamopolous, a rebirthed human who commands Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation on the EMCS Pufferfish. Yes, she's a space janitor, albeit one who has risen to the rank of lieutenant, the highest that a human can reach. Ships are run by Krakau and other races, like the wormlike Glacidea, contribute at high levels, but humans don't. Well, until the Pufferfish rescues a Nusuran freighter from a couple of Prodryan fighter ships. Somehow the crew are infected in the process and only Mops (hey, nicknames are useful in a book which revels in long and unwieldy names like Gromgimsidalgak) and her team avoid that infection on account of being suited up at the time.
And so we have an Earth Mercenary Corps ship commanded by a janitorial team, hence the series title. Where they go and what they do I'll let you discover but it's a suitably roundabout and action-fuelled journey to reach the point we knew all along that they had to reach, namely an explanation of what really went down back when the Krakau first visited Earth. 'Terminal Alliance' is a decent space opera romp even without its humour, but every time we think it might be getting too serious, Hines throws some more fun into the mix to keep us laughing. In fact, there are so many hilarious little details, it's hard to pick a favourite.
Some might go with the idea that the best storage medium for data in the future is Nusuran memory crystals, excreted by that species annually. Hines introduces each chapter with an amusing slice of background (certainly not playing these sections straight), highlighting this example in a quote from 'Rectal Revolution: A New Age in Computer Technology'. Others might enjoy the sex obsession of the walrus-like Prodryans or the distraction of feral humans by reading Jane Austen to them. Being an IT professional, I personally couldn't resist the cartoon smile that helps the janitors to figure out how to work the Pufferfish. Yes, it's a Krakau version of Clippy and it's a riot. 'Greetings, human member of the EMCS Pufferfish crew! It looks like you're trying to establish a communications channel with another ship. Would you like help?'
Of course, not everything is played for laughs. Hines liberally plays with gender, not just in having a majority of the humans we encounter be named for the wrong one but by making every species' gender terminology be translated differently into Human. All Krakau are 'she' and all Glacidae are 'they'. The Tjokko were amused by the very concept of gender, so chose to alternate pronouns, leading to suitably odd lines of dialogue like, 'She has his roots into everything.' And really, in a universe full of intelligent octopoids, insects and walruses, why would we assume that our unique take on things should apply to anyone else?
I enjoyed this book very much. Sometimes Hines tries a little hard for his humour but, rather like the Nusuran memory crystals, it all works out in the end. He had me laughing, then thrilling, then laughing, then realising he'd just slipped in something profound. I got the clear impression that he could easily write a serious novel, as much as he could write an entirely funny one. This book is a careful balance between the two and it walks the walk pretty confidently.
He's written three other series for DAW thus far (the 'Goblin Quest' series, begun by, well, 'Goblin Quest'; the 'Princess' series begun by 'The Stepsister Scheme'; and, most enticing, the 'Magic ex Libris' series begun by 'Libriomancer') and each of them currently number four, so it seems safe to assume, in the grand spirit of Douglas Adams's 'trilogy in four parts' that we can expect another three books in this one. I, for one, will be looking out for them. ~~ Hal C F Astell