CLUBHOUSE: Review: “The Gear Crew” by Jack Mackenzie

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

The Gear Crew – by Jack Mackenzie

Publisher: Rage Machine Books, British Columbia, Canada, April 2024.

Cover art: M.D.Jackson


Two starship engineers hope to find a steady job on any ship that offers livable conditions and a guaranteed paycheque. Surprisingly hard to find.


Let me start off by saying I find this novel delightfully old-fashioned. It is essentially space opera in the tradition of pulp literature predating the 1940s. I love this kind of stuff.

Now, let me be clear, I am not damning with faint praise. I am saying this book is a darn good read that will leave you smiling.

But what about all the flaws and sins of old time “hack” writing, hard to justify even when put in the context “of their time” is considered? Lovecraft springs to mind as an example of the “cloud” hanging over pulp fiction in the minds of many these days.

Well, I am not one to abandon all literature written before the present day simply because it doesn’t come up to the enlightened and prejudice-free standards of contemporary civilization. And if you think that’s an accurate depiction of contemporary culture, I must say you are charmingly naïve and gullible. We’re as bad as we’ve ever been and I, for one, believe examining life now and before our time honestly and frankly is the only hope for the future. Which, of course, merely demonstrates how naïve and gullible I am.

Be that as it may, Jack Mackenzie is a real expert on the origins and early growth of the science fiction genre. He is not simply well-read in that field beyond the scope of most SF readers of today, he has done in-depth research on the subject, uncovering all sorts of minutiae long  forgotten even by many scholars. He understands both the delights and faults of the early genre thoroughly. So, in writing a pastiche of old-time SF he knows exactly what he’s doing.

In particular, he has hit upon the one plot device that stirs my sense of wonder the most, the one “gimmick” that for me defines the very essence of what I find fascinating in science fiction. I am an absolute sucker for this kind of thing. I will watch any movie or read any book that has this as it’s central theme. To wit:

A derelict alien spacecraft is discovered. What are its secrets?

Uncovering the conundrum posed by the derelict is what the book is all about. Fine by me. Reading such is my idea of a great time.

Naturally, there are difficulties getting into the derelict and rendering it safe to explore. Equally naturally, it turns out that the concept “safe” is not applicable. Turns out the fate of the salvagers, indeed the entire human race, is at stake. Resolving the problem to the point of receiving a decent salvager’s fee is not in itself sufficient. Franklyn and Sri need to save all of galactic civilization as well. Otherwise, the money earned will be useless.

Traditionally, the pulpfiction hero is good at fisticuffs and can punch his way through any problem. True, Franklyn does have a bionic arm useful for overwhelming opponents. However, he’s also a bit of a dope, often reacting slowly if at all. His need to understand everything thoroughly before attempting to resolve anything is quite the nerdish handicap. Here I think Jack is having fun parodying both gung-ho hero types and nerds of the laboratory assistant variety. The humour is based on Franklyn being unusually dense even for the pulpish heroes of the distant past.

Sri, his female, blue-skinned partner from the planet Kiton, is quick-witted and impulsive, liable to react instantly to a perceived threat. This is quite a handy trait, overall, but it does lead to her reacting so quickly she never has time to explain. She’s a doer, not a thinker. The very opposite of Franklyn. This makes for an awkward working relationship. Yet, somehow, their natural characteristics compliment each other. In combination they manage to survive. No mean feat considering the threat they face. Their stumbling, unexpected progress against all odds is rather endearing. Binds them to the reader.

Sri is the equivalent of the half-breed alien sidekick of tales of yore. At least there are no hidden tentacles. Unlike the original literature, racism is confronted, in that Sri is worried that the new crew they sign up with will objectify her as Franklyn’s “pet” and worse. But since the third-rate crew of the third-rate ship they sign up with is generally considered the “scum of off-Earth” by everybody, they welcome her, once she’s proven “okay,” as a fellow victim they can accept as one of their own. This neatly sidesteps the whole issue of racism inherent in the tradition of half-breed alien sidekicks.

In the early pulp fiction the hero and heroine tended to behave as if they engaged in dating but weren’t actually doing anything that would merit a ray-gun wedding. It sufficed that they were in love and would make any sacrifice to save one another. Franklyn and Sri are of that ilk, except that Franklyn isn’t certain Sri loves him. He believes he doesn’t understand anything about Sri’s motives and not much of his own. Still, the fact that he is jealous of the sentient, intelligent “Quibble” tool she likes to feed and caress indicates something of his affection for her. He’d dare to go further, if only she would lay out the path for him to follow. Yes, he’s that dense. Charming fellow.

Sri is part of the mystery. She appears to hold secrets closely. Is this trait the product of vulnerability? Of fears of being mistreated? Or does she simply know too much and must at all costs, even personal costs, remain silent?

Franklyn and Sri are like magnets. Depending on which way events turn them about, they either attract or repel one another, often at the most inconvenient times. The manner in which their relationship evolves is a far cry from the static love-interest background taken for granted in old-fashioned pulp. In this story characterization is a living thing twisting and turning as much as the plot itself. Indeed, characterization and plot are intertwined and dependent on one another. They reinforce one another. In that sense this is a much more sophisticated work of fiction than the standard product of the bulk of hack writers back in the day. This work exhibits thoroughly modern sensibilities.

The plot is more complicated than I’ve indicated. Indeed, complication builds on complication but, as in every good mystery, the ending explains everything. And scattered here and there are elements parodying not only the science fiction of yore but also the science fiction of today.


I find this a thoroughly satisfying and entertaining “old-fashioned” novel. It’s loads of fun to read. Old-fashioned fun. A feel-good way to explore the best of the past without getting ensnared in the faults of the past. It is a throwback to the “ancient” sense of wonder thrill which inspired early generations of fans to a lifelong addiction to science fiction. You, too, can go back in time and rediscover the joy of your first exposure to the genre. Go ahead. Have fun. You’ll like it.

Find it at:  < The Gear Crew >



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