Eric Brown has written & published just about one novel per year since his first in 1992. Many of those novels have published through Solaris Books, including his Bengal Station Trilogy. At their heart, the books of “The Bengal Station Trilogy” are a modern Psychic Detective novels, albeit set on a space station in the future and involving aliens. That “psychic detective” would be Jeff Vaughan, a cynical, distrustful man who, at times, is trying to run from his past. As the title of the series implies, the novels are set on (or launch from) Bengal Station, an interstellar orbiting above India and Thailand.
Jeff Vaughan is a telepath working on Bengal Station assisting the police in several investigations. One of these investigations is related the death of Tiger, a young girl whom he befriended. As Vaughan learns more about the cause of her death – overdose of an exotic drug called Rhapsody – a web of connections to a cult emerge and Vaughan’s life becomes increasingly endangered. He begins to suspect his supervisor, Weiss, of having connections to the illicit trade. Vaughan’s pseudo-partner helps Vaughan in his secret investigations all the while trying to urge Vaughan to come out from behind the cold barrier he’s erected around himself. As their investigations progress, Vaughan learns of a cult that worships a star god that, to this reader, had parallels the Great Old One Cthulhu. All the while Vaughan and Chandra are moving along their investigation, Brown parallels their story with that of Tiger’s sister Su (a lady of the night) as Su searches for Tiger.
Brown layers Vaughan with plenty of faults: he’s drug addicted, a complete cynic, and possesses a dark and mysterious past, and Jeff has an inability to develop true human connections. Despite these failings, or perhaps because of them, Vaughan comes across as a realistic character. Even if he isn’t the type of guy you’d want to hang out with at the bar, he’s a character whose story is fascinating to see unfold and whose back-story I wanted to learn.
While the Bengal Station of the series title is the main setting of the novel, Vaughan and Chandra do travel off world to investigate a ritual of the cult, the Church of the Adoration of the Chosen One. We learn very little about Vaughan in the early part of the novel, rather, Brown uses this chunk of the novel to allow us to see the story through the eyes of Vaughan for most of it, with pieces from the point of view of Su and Chandra, as well as a character by the name of Osborne, whose connection to Vaughan comes to light near the end of the novel.
Brown makes Vaughan’s ability out to be more of a curse than a power he enjoys using. Being able to read minds is not a pleasant thing and it takes a great deal for Vaughan to block out other’s thoughts. Due to events in his past, he is even more reluctant to use his ability, but he often realizes inaction would bring him more guilt than action. The whole idea of the telepathic individual and the background for the development of these individuals was very well-thought out by Brown, telepathy comes across as very plausible.
As this novel fits in the thriller/detective mold, Brown keeps the pace very high, making it difficult to set the book aside. I felt I just could not put the book down unless I at least finished the chapter I was currently reading. I also liked the chapter titles and how they tied into the narrative.
Su’s clientele comes across in contrasts – matter of fact realism through her eyes relaying with shocking and at times horrifically grotesque. Because of a gash on her face, she is something of a fetish to a certain tentacle alien. Here, I think, Brown is playing with the conception of non-Asians have of some of the ‘tentacle porn’ that is associated with Asian pornographic culture. Along with this, Brown employs an “Engrish” dialect when he shows Su or her sister Tiger speaking, as well as other more subtle hints of both Thai and Indian culture. This is no different than Mark Twain phonetically spelling much of the dialogue of his characters from the American South. Many of these elements could possibly be perceived as stereotyping, though as an outsider to much of this culture, I found it as Brown showing a diverse future culture that is distinctly more than the typical white-bread future culture that for many years was associated with Science Fiction. With Necropath simply the first of a three book series, Brown hasn’t shown all his cards for Jeff Vaughan despite hinting at what already looks to be a pot-winning hand.
The second book, Xenopath takes place about a year or two after the events of book one, with Jeff Vaughan and Sukara married and expecting their first child and Vaughan having removed himself from his previous life as one of the most prominent telepaths on Bengal Station. The frustration, anger, and distrust that were such a part of Jeff’s life in Necropath have been replaced with the loving comfort of his marriage. That is, of course, until and old associate comes looking for Vaughan with an offer. Jeff reluctantly agrees to work with his old associate since it is claimed the mind-reading will be less stressful and his wife and unborn child, he finds it hard to say no to the pay.
Vaughan is asked to look into the mysterious death of Robert Kormier, a xenobiologist, that is a biologist who studies alien biology. When he learns of the corporation for whom Kormier worked, Vaughan’s suspicious nature kicks into higher gear especially because Kormier was paid by a multi-national corporation (Scheering-Lassiter) to visit the planet Mallory, which is owned by the corporation. As part of the investigation, Vaughan must leave Bengal Station – 70 light years away to be specific where he meets a telepathic alien, or as the title indicates, a Xenopath.
Meanwhile, back on the satellite, a young girl by the name of Pham gives a glimpse of the dark underbelly of Bengal Station. Also on the station is Jeff’s aforementioned wife and if the murderer can’t get to Jeff across the stars, then they’ll try to get to him through his wife.
The final book in the trilogy, Cosmopath, once again picks up some time (about four years) after the previous book. Jeff is approached by a very rich and powerful individual, Rabindranath Chandrasakar, with the task of reading the mind of a dead scientist who was sent on an expedition to a planet (Delta Cephei VII) with cache of potential resources. Jeff had an understandably difficult experience reading the mind of a dead person and is reluctant to go through the ordeal again. Vaughan is unwilling to leave his wife and child until he learns that his youngest daughter, Li, has contracted leukemia. When Chandrasakar offers completely funding Li’s treatment on the condition Vaughan work for him, our cynical telepath can hardly say no. This time around, Vaughan is once again forced to depart Bengal Station for his job, leaving his wife Su behind. Though both are uncomfortable with the situation, the both know it is the best option for the well-being of their daughter.
Jeff is not alone on Chandrasakar’s expedition, nor is he even the lone telepath. Another POV in this final installment of the trilogy is Chandrasakar’s lover, Das. Through her, we are able to see Jeff in a light outside of himself and shows some of the thoughts and reasoning from other characters on the recovery mission. She provides a good balance to Vaughan, calling him out for his cynicism and distrust of large organizations (be it the government for which she works or the company her lover owns), but despite their conflicting ideologies, a thin line of trust slowly builds between the two. As the novel rises to an exciting climax, Brown reveals that the mission Jeff and his team are going to recover found more than anybody expected including humans and aliens alike on the planet.
By the end, Brown introduces a larger galactic landscape than he initially showed the characters and readers, while bringing closure to Vaughan’s story (for now at least) and revealing just what a Cosmopath is. I’ve been a fan of Brown’s writing, though I haven’t read the entirety of his oeuvre. While Kings of Eternity might be his strongest novel (and one of my favorite SF novels from the past handful of years), The Bengal Station Trilogy is a fun series that blends elements of science fiction, mystery and even dashes of cosmic horror in the Lovecraftian vein at time that should appeal to a lot more readers than I see talking about these books, they are highly readable and engaging novels and I don’t hesitate in recommending them.
What becomes clear over the course of these three books is how Brown sets up a framework for the series, but with each novel in the series, tweaks the dressing for that framework in fun and interesting ways. Part of the fun in reading such books is revisiting with the characters in each installment.
I have to commend the art direction from Solaris books on these three books. Brown has had some good cover work on the books Solaris has published, but these three take the cake. While each novel’s cover works as an image unto itself, placed together, the three pieces by Jon Sullivan form a triptych depicting the entirety of Bengal Station.