BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A seriously dysfunctional crew of a scavenger ship faces a deadly threat in deep space.
PROS: Interesting plot and interpersonal relationships between characters; a unique take on space opera.
CONS: The surrealistic elements of the plot were huge pills to swallow; abrupt ending.
BOTTOM LINE: A good story with an intense space opera vibe.
One of the quotes on the cover of Paul Jessup’s novella, Open Your Eyes, calls it a “surrealistic space opera”. What a perfectly succinct way of describing the book’s feel.
The plot is straightforward enough: The main protagonist, Ekhi, is an unexpected passenger on a scavenger ship with a seriously dysfunctional crew. Its centuries-old captain, Itsasu, is nearly withered away to nothing, running the ship from her preservation tank. Not only does Itsasu guide the ship with a secret agenda, she watches over it by proxy (via fabricated wax dolls) and spies on its passengers with countless mechanical drones. She also communicates with the ship’s AI, who also harbors secrets. Meanwhile, the ship’s navigator, Mari, (who is missing half the flesh from her face, her exposed skull merged with metal) is involved with Sugoi, a big dumb brute who speaks in poorly articulated sentence fragments; mostly angry ones, especially to his younger brother, Hodei. Hodei splits his waking hours dreaming about his brother’s girl and a magazine pinup model. The crew soon faces a challenge that threatens their very survival.
This sounds like rich fodder for space opera because it’s exactly that. The plot and the characters’ interpersonal relationships are intertwined in a way that keeps the story interesting and fresh. Despite its length, there’s lots to chew on in this meaty novella-sized book.
So what’s surrealistic about it? How about this: Mari’s metal-cage skull houses butterflies. And this: The danger facing the crew is a “linguistic virus” that spreads by forcing its victims to utter a certain contagious phrase that kills the listener in a gruesome way. Want more? Ekhi has been impregnated by a supernova.
The question is not whether these absurd story elements are believable – such undertakings are specifically meant to provide flair and artistic expression. The question is: are they necessary? These far-out elements are huge pills to swallow for anyone unprepared for their appearance. In that regard, the back cover quote also serves as a warning to anyone expecting rigorous science. A mistake would have been to include the surrealism for its own sake – to have the author randomly dabble in his imagination…usually at the expense of the reader. In some cases, it does seem like these elements are more literary experiment than anything else — like the caged butterflies, which I supposed could be spun as symbolism for the characters that are merely pawns to some greater controlling force. In other cases, the surrealistic elements play a large role in the evolving plot and thus can be given some leniency. The former usage leads to things like the book’s abrupt ending; the latter gives the book a pleasing uniqueness. The good news here is that the resulting balance does indeed make for a good story – one that gives off an intense space opera vibe.