Saturday, 17 July 2010

Retribution Falls; Yeah, I miss Firefly too

I've commented before that people write the books they want to read and which they have to write because no-one else has gotten round to it. If I'm right about that, Chris Wooding really misses Joss Whedon's cancelled SF show Firefly.

Not that Wooding is wrong to miss the show; it was great and it's a shame that there wasn't more of it. And it's not that Wooding is just writing a whole bunch more episodes of the show in his mind, because he's not. The internet is full of fan fiction in which people take their favourite characters from established fiction and write more stuff with them in it. Wooding's done something different; he's taken the basic premises behind Firefly and put his own characters into it. So instead of the common crappy thing of "What if I took these lovable characters and put them into new adventures? With me in them, and I'm the hero and they're the sidekicks?" Wooding's done the much weirder thing of saying "What if you had a set up like Firefly's, but you populated it with assholes?" That's the kind of thing which deserves a sort of twisted respect, because a writer's got to spend months of time with his characters and just like real life, if you've got to be stuck in a small room with a bunch of folks, you'd prefer to be with cute loveable funny folks.

When Whedon threw together Firefly, the characters were his usual assembly of flawed but likeable smartasses, for all that they were supposed to be near-piratical ne'er-do-wells. On TV, you grab a bunch of such characters and you expose them to a series of wacky challenges against a larger background. The larger background of Firefly was the wild frontier in space; Firefly and its crew bounced from one planet to the next, getting into some kind of bind every week. Travel between planets was practical and fairly routine, but cost money so if they wanted to keep flying they had to take risks to get the money, and this drove the day to day plots forward while in the background bigger plots unfolded. Fox got bored waiting for it to make sense and/or money and took it behind the bike-shed after 14 episodes, and that was that - while I like the movie, it does NOT answer the questions in the TV show and killing Wash was just the pits....

Anyhow, Wooding has cooked up his own background world, which is weirdly mappable to the Firefly universe without being a knock off. There's just one world, but the terrain is shattered and broken in ways that make air transport the only practical way to move people and things around. The air transport doesn't make a gram of sense, since it's based on what might as well be called made-it-up-for-the-sake-of-cool-ium, but is actually called aerium, which somehow can be run through an engine to generate lifting gas. While there is no way that the laws of physics could ever fit this into their busy schedule, it does let you have big chunky airships trundling around the skies in the same way that Firefly had big spaceships trundling around space. And the separated duchies and townships make for islands or even sort of planets, each existing in its own little bubble of isolation, which lets the characters stay slightly ahead of the posse in a way that would be trickier in a more joined up world.

The fragmentation has also left the world a somewhat lawless one, so that for the main cast it's effectively the Wild West, which again echoes Firefly, a show pretty much designed to be a western in space, complete with the resonance of a civil war in the not too distant past. So the set up and the tech and the equipment on offer (everyone has access to firearms, but old school, wild west-y sorts of firearms; shotguns and machine guns and autocannons but no missiles or lasers) all weirdly echo Firefly. There's even a mysterious force of killers on the edge of reality called the Mane, who echo Whedon's Reavers.

Why Wooding gets away with all of this - and there's no way it happened by accident - is that he's populated it with a very different cast of characters. His Firefly, the Ketty Jay, is crewed by a bunch of jerks. Frey, the captain, has none of the soiled nobility of Mal Reynolds, and his crew has nothing in common with the loyal and steady gang of smartasses who follow Reynolds around. Frey's a cowardly jerk who cares about his own skin and his ship - not always in that exact order. The rest of his crew consists of a doctor who spends most of his time getting drunk and beating people up, an engineer who never talks, one pilot who's an idiot with no redeeming features and another pilot who's only useful when flying a fighter, a navigator that he's just hired who turns out to be undead, and two passengers one of whom is a summoner of daemons who's on the run for killing his niece by accident and the other of whom is a cyborg golem possessed by the ghost of the same niece. You could go looking for an echo of Simon and River Tam in that last pair if you wanted to, but good luck making it stick.

In a way, Retribution Falls is a deconstruction of Firefly; Wooding is showing us a far darker version of what it would be like if you had a world where vaguely crooked morons could lay their hands on flying trucks. Where I think he deserves big points is that he doesn't pull his punches with his characters. They're not lovable jerks, they're just jerks. By the time you get to the end of the book, they're a lot less jerky, at least to each other, but they've gone through a lot together and been given good reasons to rely on each other. Wooding puts them into the grinder by dint of a persuasive series of stumbles, and manages to keep them in it through a rather choppy and episodic narrative. Frey begins the book happy enough to have one of his crew shot in the head rather than give up the codes to fly his ship; by the end of the book he's taking risks with his own skin to save the others, and Wooding's done a good enough job of orchestrating things that it feels like something Frey and his crew have earned. It's not a great book - Wooding's not a terrific stylist - but it's a solid piece of work that despite its influences is somehow very true to its own self.

At the back of the book there's a reprint of the blog entries which Wooding put up as the Captain's log before the book was published; they sketch in the background for the opening of the book, but the book doesn't really need them. What's interesting is that they're first person smartarse, and I can't help thinking that they represent the way Wooding set out to write the book before he realised that he couldn't get the characters to come across as big enough assholes unless he used third person distancing. I'm hoping that for the second book he can find some more of that smart-arsery - the only real weakness in Retribution Falls is that it cries out for more sardonic humour than it has.

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