Sunday, February 24, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Wildcatter by Dave Duncan vs. Harmony by Keith Brooke

The first round of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books continues with Wildcatter by Dave Duncan going against Harmony by Keith Brooke. As always, the winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Wildcatter: Edge trade paperback, August 2012, 153 pages, cover art by Ralph Kermunski. Dave Duncan is the author of over forty books, predominantly epic fantasy. He is a two-time winner of the Aurora Award for Canadian science fiction and fantasy.

Wildcatter is a story of planetary exploration, drawing on Duncan's experiences as a real-life wildcatter with independent oil exploration companies. Our protagonist Seth Broderick is part of a six-person crew hoping to strike it rich by discovering something on an unexplored world that could be converted into a medicine or other valuable commodity. Seth is the prospector, with the hazardous duty of actually scouting out the planet surface. In the first chapter, the crew arrives at a promising new world, only to discover a hazard beacon left by a previous ship that found the place so dangerous as to warrant quarantine. The second chapter flashes back to when Seth interviewed to become part of the crew.

Harmony: Solaris paperback, June 2012, 413 pages, cover art by Adam Tredowski. Keith Brooke is the author of over a dozen science fiction books under that name, as well as four YA books as by Nick Gifford. He is also the founder of the Infinity Plus website and e-book imprint. I've long been a fan of his work, as evidenced by the fact that the blurbs inside the front cover of Harmony include one from my review of Brooke's excellent novel Genetopia.

Harmony (published in the UK under the title alt.human) is set long after Earth has been taken over by aliens. Humans are herded into "Ipps," Indigenous Peoples' Preserves. Our teenaged hero Dodge is bold enough to venture outside his Ipp at night, on penalty of death if he is caught in a place where his "pids," the identifiers in his bloodstream, say he is not authorized to be. Dodge is an expert at manipulating the pids to create fake authorizations, a skill that comes in handy when he encounters a young woman who, inexplicably, has no pids at all.

The Battle: We have a battle between two futuristic science fiction novels. They are both capably written, and both authors have succeeded in getting me interested in their future universes. But after 25 pages, Harmony is the book that has really gotten me engaged with the story.

For one thing, Harmony hits the ground running, with a sense of real danger right from the opening scene, when Dodge is in peril of being caught and killed by Earth's alien overlords. In contrast, Wildcatter works us into the story gradually. For Battle of the Books purposes, it doesn't help that the second chapter of the book is an extended, and not very dramatic, flashback.

For another thing, from the outset Harmony gives the reader a powerful feeling of strangeness. The multiple alien races treating Earth as their home, the aliens' use of pheromones to give humans panic attacks, and the odd emotion-based language in general use, even by humans, all combine to make for an interestingly bizarre setting. This sense of strangeness is a strength of Keith Brooke's, as I noted in my review of Genetopia.

In contrast, Wildcatter's future has rather a Golden Age feel to it. Even the crew's fascination with the various sexual permutations possible among its crew of two men, two women, and two "herms," strikes me like something out of an old Robert Heinlein or Philip José Farmer story. While I like Heinlein and Farmer, I already have plenty of their books on my shelves. Harmony promises a more original reading experience.

THE WINNER: Harmony by Keith Brooke

Harmony advances to the second round, to meet eiter The Croning by Laird Barron or Fated by Alyson Noël.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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