CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Lost Souls,” a space opera novel by Noah Chinn

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

Lost Souls – by Noah Chinn

Publisher: Noah Chinn Books, 2023.

Cover Art – by ©Wicked Good Book Covers.

Premise: 

 A down-on-his-luck space pilot rescues a junk-rat girl looking to hide from whomever is hunting her. Now they both have reason to run. Seems like everyone in the galaxy is out to get them. Truth is, that’s the truth. Things can’t possibly get any worse, or can they?

Review:

Shortly after I contacted Noah and asked him to send me an ARC (advance, review copy), I noticed Robert Runté had a review of it published in the Ottawa Book Review. Naturally I have scrupulously avoided reading Robert’s review. I want mine to be entirely the product of my mind, for what that’s worth. If comparison reveals any duplication of response, I will fall back on the old “great minds think alike” excuse. If, on the other hand, my reaction is perceived as totally different and completely nonsensical, well… it wouldn’t be the first time…

What attracted me to the book is that publicity implies it is a space opera. I love space opera. For those unfamiliar with the term (how can you be a science fiction reader and not know the history of the genre?), radio sitcoms in the 1930s became known as soap operas. Wild West radio shows, with similar romantic subplots, became known as horse operas. In 1941 a popular American science fiction fan (and later writer), Wilson Tucker, came up with the term space opera to apply to a specific type of science fiction plot that had been around since the 1920s, namely tales of Galaxy-wide adventure involving space empires in collision, gigantic space battles, dastardly aliens, human renegades and pirates of all sorts, death rays, blasters, all usually focused on an individual hero who saves the day, the human race, and the young heroine he’s particularly interested in. Mad science abounds, if not actual mad scientists. The two most famous writers in this sub-genre, the pioneers, were E.E. “Doc” Smith with his Skylark and Lensmen series, and Edmond Hamilton and his Crashing Suns and Captain Future series.

Of course, by 1941 the basic formula had been much imitated and become one of the earliest SF clichés, so that Tucker had “space opera” in mind as an appropriate descriptive term for any “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.” Fortunately, time and human imagination has proven it possible for any cliché to be reworked into something fresh, innovative, and entertaining. The original Star Wars trilogy fits into that category, even though it has spawned numerous imitators or, shall I say, has “influenced” the genre anew.

Where does Lost Souls fit in? Wonderfully well. Almost all of the space opera cliches are included, which makes for a nostalgic read, but with new interpretations that feel right and bring the ambience up to date.

For example, spacecraft combat in the style of WWI fighter planes. This is in Star Wars and goes right back to the 1920s literature and also 1930s movie serials with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Absolutely idiotic given the speed of even sub-FTL spacecraft, but a convention easy to visualize in the brain or on-screen. Noah throws in a quick explanation as to why space freighters, warships and pirates would and could indulge in dog-fight duels. He postulates it is what the human mind, emotionally and conceptually, is best suited for. Consequently, utilizing extremely advanced knowledge of physics “under the hood,” spacecraft in the future are deliberately designed to fly dog-fight style as if the pilot clutching his joystick is responsible when in fact the onboard computers are managing the micro-complexity of the task. Very much like the video game The World of Tanks which is really just a game of hiding behind obstacles and then poking out to shoot something, at least from the player’s perspective, while the game itself is calculating things like angle of shell impact, force of penetration, and so on. All the player knows is that suddenly the enemy tank, or his own, “blows up real good.” I’ve played the game over 1,800 times so I know what I’m talking about. In other words, in the future, spacecraft operations will be designed for idiots like me. Makes sense.

Another example, and my last one since I don’t want to put in too many spoilers, genuine aliens are rare. Most of the intelligent species in the galaxy are variants of the original Terran form of humanity, and not simply because us greedy folk spread rapidly as soon as FTL drive was invented, but because we have common ancestors. Turns out the theory of Panspermia was correct. Hence humans are everywhere, albeit adapted to their “home” worlds. And, of course, AI combined with nanotech and cyborgtech have produced multiple intelligent species as well.  It’s a zoo of a Galaxy, but a humanoid zoo, very much like the Star Trek universe.

So, elements of Star Trek and Star Wars, but no shame in that everything derives from predecessors dating back to the 1920s. Really, it’s all just space opera stuff. But this time, in this novel, there are explanations why it all makes sense. This makes it far easier to accept the basic premise, a Galaxy-spanning civilization that can’t possibly exist, at least as described and yet, everything being internally consistent in a perfectly logical manner, is as easy to swallow as your favourite ice cream. Besides, the explanations for why the way things are, scattered like chocolate chips amid the ice cream, are tasty… I mean, entertaining in themselves. Adds to the fun of reading the book.

The beginning of the book takes place in a space junkyard aboard a vast space station. It reminds me of my first attempt at a novel which I began at the age of 15 and completed when I was 18 (more than half a century ago). I called it Against the Maluii, which is supposed to be pronounced “Mal-you-eye,” but everyone persists in pronouncing “Ma-louie.” I even drew a picture of an evil Maluii, a Gorn-like humanoid reptile before the famous Star Trek episode aired (see, great minds do think alike) but it impressed no-one. “Why does it have breasts?” inquired my aunt. I replied, somewhat testily “Those are pectoral muscles!” “Could have fooled me,” she said. Mortified, I threw the crayon drawing in the garbage. Pity. I mention this to convey the less-than-professional nature of my novel (never published, needless to say).

Point is, the opening scene of my novel was somewhat similar to that of Lost Souls, involving a lengthy description of the cargo hold of a space-going freighter. I was trying to set the stage for the plot, forgetting that normally the stage is set before the curtain opens, so that the action can begin without delay as soon as the stage is visible. One beta reader described my book as “turgid.” I gather I never did get to the action.

I would describe the opening sequence of Lost Souls as sprightly and fascinating. How was this accomplished? What technique makes it different from my opening? I think it boils down to confidence on the part of the author. Everything I put down on paper for the Maluii novel was tentative, exploratory, and uncertain. Noah writes as if all the characters take for granted the nature of the cultural and physical environment they live in, as should the reader. Nothing apologetic. The only thing that needs to be questioned is the consequences of assorted humanoid shenanigans, but the background setting, not at all. This renders the constantly shifting scenes, no matter how bizarre or intriguing, instantly comfortable and acceptable, even reassuring, such that the reader can focus on the characters.

Ah, yes, the characters. There’s Moss, who used to be quite the wealthy celebrity, now reduced to an unknown space-rogue trying to get by, Hel, a young woman with a secret who can’t remember what it is, a loyal spaceship who is hard to get along with, and a supporting cast of about a dozen selfish types out for the main chance like everyone else in the galaxy. Most of them are so cynical and jaded their view of their competition is often quietly sardonic. They are chronically bemused. Whether they are villains or heroes depends on their opponents’ interpretation. Given their self-absorbed, narcissist’s nature one word could be used to describe them all, “petty” comes closest. However, that leaves room for everything from corruption to piracy, from slavery to war. You know, the usual. Everyone has a motive. Everyone has a goal. And “revenge” is a popular motif. Surviving anywhere in our Galaxy is a bit like belonging to a street gang, namely potentially lucrative, exciting when it’s not boring, and probably short term. Still, nobody gives up… ever.

Focused on just a few individuals, how can the plot encompass the truly vast scale of genuine space opera? Noah does it easily. Hel doesn’t know it, but the secret she can’t remember is worth trillions of credits which, even accounting for centuries of inflation from today’s purchasing power, is still a sizeable sum and, if not worth dying for, is certainly worth killing for, even on a planetary scale. A war could result. But nobody cares, if you can be the first to discover her secret, you’re set for life, apart from all the people who will hate you and try to kill you. A minor detail.

Right from the get-go the essence of the secret is metaphorically captured in the mechanical-electronic gizmo she is building in her spare time. No-one who sees it has any idea what it is or what it can do. Neither does she but feels compelled to scrounge here and there to add to it. Since all the characters in the book, including Hel, are trying to figure out what it is, the reader can’t help but join in. It’s obviously important, perhaps supremely important, but in what way? This adds a quest-like aspect to the plot. More important, it conveys a sense of tension and expectation, just by existing. A very clever authorial device. Well worth imitating, the writer in me thinks.

Of course, a common question every reader asks, and not just in genre fiction, is “what the heck is going on?” Too often an author responds in a linear fashion, amounting to one of those annoying post-commercial re-caps in many a modern documentary. Two sins are often evident in poorly written novels with poorly written info dumps, namely telling the reader what they’ve often already figured out, and boring the reader right out of the story, making it hard to get back in.

None of that happens here. Needful info dumps seem to come along at precisely the right time, just when the reader is busting a gut trying to grasp what is happening and why, but, infinitely more useful and important, the information, in all it’s implications, is totally unexpected and throws a monkey wrench into the gears, forcing the plot onto new tangents. Further, the brief info dumps not only accelerate the plot but often reveal more of this or that character’s background such that everything begins to make more sense. This is a very intelligent use of info dumps. They are well-integrated into the forward movement of the plot and character development, masterfully so. Beginning writers would do well to study Noah’s technique.

Another flaw noted in bad writing is a tendency for characters (read: the author) to withhold information from the reader. This can be particularly annoying if it is obvious, in hindsight, that the character who knew that particular piece of information could have solved the mystery or found the treasure right away. In films this can be so obvious that audience members wind up shouting advice to screen characters, be it “Look on the desk in front of you, you idiot!” or “Open the envelope, stupid!”

Noah deftly avoids this problem. For one thing, his characters concentrate on the matter at hand, like chess players thinking only one or two moves ahead (which is why I always lose at chess). Hel does this because someone or something has blocked most of her memory and it’s all she can do to concentrate in the moment. As for Moss, he’s so bitter and despondent over his fall from glory he deliberately avoids thinking about the past, and so cynical he questions everything about the present, so suspicious he literally can’t explain things so much as test other character’s opinions to see if they picked up on stuff he missed. Nobody wants to share information. Every conversation is a mutual interrogation. Trust is had to come by. Consequently, the unwillingness of the characters to answer questions or even speculate is perfectly credible. No one is willing to show their hand.

Moss and Hel in particular tend to keep explanations disarmingly simple and, when pressed, say “It’s complicated” and leave it at that. And yet, every character is constantly trying to figure out what the other guy’s true angle is, what are they really after? Almost every conversation is a jousting match, or at least a game of bluff. As a reader, I find that fascinating.

There’s nothing passive about any of the characters. Even if they’re just sitting in a command chair grumbling, they’re actively trying to make sense of what is going on and what, if anything, they are going to do about it. Noah’s habit of jumping around from one character point of view to another works surprisingly well, in that the reader quickly constructs a holistic grasp of everything at stake while simultaneously learning to empathize with all the characters. Some authors do similar jumping about to no good purpose. Every time Noah does it we learn more and we are drawn further into the story. We are left with an overall impression as a seamless whole.

One thing pleased me on a personal level. The novel I am currently writing features several characters who stumble along from one pitfall to the next, vaguely focused on a distant goal, but mostly concentrating on the situation-by-situation need to survive. In Lost Souls both Moss and Hel start off in an identical fashion to my characters, but despite this, eventually the novel concludes in such a manner as to justify every event and action that led up to it. I can only hope my novel will do the same. Individual events can seem arbitrary, but ultimately, to be successful as a novel, everything has to have a purpose which contributes to the evolution of the plot. Noah succeeds at accomplishing this. He has been on top of things and firmly in control on every page. His manipulation of the reader is nothing less than magnificent. We sit enthralled by the web he spins as a storyteller. The book is hard to put down.

CONCLUSION:

So, yes, an old-fashioned space opera, with all the comfort zone reading that implies, but also so full of original touches, cynical humour and quirky detail that as a result everything feels fresh and original. The best of both worlds. A past view of the future seen through contemporary eyes. Suits me just fine. I enjoyed every bit of it. Left me satisfied and exhilarated. I trust it will do the same for you.

Check it out at:  < Lost Souls >

 

 

Source: Auto Draft

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