More Thrilling Adventures
By Cheryl Morgan
As people are probably getting to know by now, Chris Roberson is a big fan of the pulp ethic, of thrilling adventure stories simply told. His latest foray into pulp revivalism is Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, a new novel from Pyr. It tells the story of Akilina "Leena" Chirikov, the pilot of the ill-fated Vostok 7. History tells us that Russian engineers cancelled the launch of that space craft, but actually it did reach orbit, whereupon it vanished into one of those inconvenient space-time discontinuities. Chirikov found herself orbiting a strange planet, at which point her adventures were only just beginning.
The planet of Paragaea is a version of Earth in a parallel universe, or something similar. It is populated by strange races of man-animal hybrids: jaguar men, snake men and so on. The book is dedicated to, amongst others, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to Alex Raymond, the creator of Flash Gordon, which should give you some idea of what to expect. Along with her companions, Lt. Hieronymous Bonaventure ("Hiero"), a former Napoleonic-period British naval officer, and Balam, the exiled prince of the jaguar men, she travels through this new world having, well, adventures.
"Easy?" Hieronymous said, pushing off the stool and jumping to his feet. He mimed a martial pose, like a comic opera hero. "And where would be the fun if it were easy? If we have to storm the walls of the Diamond Citadel of Atla, if we have to scale the fire mountain of Ignis itself, wellÖ" He tapered off, looking around the pub and realizing his drink had gone empty. "Well," he went on, sudden inspiration striking, "isnít that better than hanging around here till death takes us in our sleep?"
The particular adventure in question, of course, is to try to find another trans-dimensional portal whereby Leena, a devoted servant of the Soviet system, can return to our Earth and report to her superior officers. However, this is primarily an excuse to allow our heroes to wander back and fore across the landscape, meet various strange beings, and get into hair-raising scrapes. Paragaea is one of those books in which the heroes find themselves in mortal danger at the end of every other chapter, only to spring free with a single bound in the beginning of the next.
Iím not a great expert on pulp-era fiction, but I think it quite likely that one of the attractions of Burroughsí and Raymondís fiction was that they never wrote a book that was 400 pages long. Roberson, on the other hand, has done this. It isnít long before the reader wonders why. Clearly some of the encounters are necessary to the furtherance of the plot. In particular their teaming up with the android, Benu, is necessary to show that Paragaea, far from being the primitive society it seems, is in fact a post-scientific society filled with wonders of nanotechnology and genetic engineering that Roberson doesnít need to explain because they are so far advanced that they are indistinguishable from magic.
Some of the encounters are also necessary because Roberson, commendably, does try to do some character development and address the issue of how Leenaís Communist ideals are affected by being thrown into a pseudo-mediaeval world where no one has heard of Karl Marx. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the encounters exist only because Robersonís imagination is a little too endless for his own good. Burroughs or Raymond would, I suspect, have made two or three books out of Robersonís one, and I suspect they might have been more exciting because of that.
On the other hand, Roberson has to work within the modern industry where a novel is expected to be in the region of 300-500 pages (or 800 if it is a UK-published fantasy). And his book does do pretty much what it is advertised to do. Iím tempted to say that it would work pretty well as a YA book, except that I think youngsters today are way more cynical than they were when I was a kid. Paragaea is probably a book for adults who yearn for simpler times, rather than for kids who want to escape the world they know. But it is a competent piece of escapism, and it does manage to sneak in some serious stuff now and then when the reader isnít looking. In particular, while it is occasionally critical of Communism, it reserves most of its venom for religious fundamentalists. It isnít my sort of book, but Iím sure it will find a good market.
I note also that Roberson claims to have included a number of "Easter Eggs" that fellow pulp fans will notice. Iím completely clueless on this subject, but I know that Roberson is very well read in his chosen field and this may provide lots of entertainment for his fellow enthusiasts.