Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sat Jun 02 02:15:33 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #64

%T Mission: Tori
%A Johanna M. Bolton
Publisher: Ballantine/DelRey
%O paperback, US$3.95 %P 232 %G 0-345-36340-X

I've observed before (RR#15, RR#40) that hard-man-with-a-mission stories are ubiquitous in SF. In today's post-feminist culture, hard-woman-with-a-mission stories are fairly common too. The easiest of these to write are the ones that mix the conventions of SF with those of the spy thriller -- it's just so bloody easy to ring those move-them-off-the-shelves changes when your protagonist is beautiful, a secret agent for some clandestine gang of do-gooders, and has special transhuman powers, to boot.

Just because this sort of plot and premise is a bit hackneyed by now doesn't mean that everything that uses it is irredeemable trash. Most fans deep enough into the field have a soft spot for James H. Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon and Agent Of Vega stories, for example. What it does mean is that an author using it owes it to the reader to excel on other levels -- in world-building or puzzle-crafting, for example, or with characterization that gives the stereotypic characters of the subgenre extra depth or surprising twists, or by using the plot to explore some ethical issue that can only be posed in an SF context.

Sadly, most writers in this subgenre crank out story as if their readers were just looking for another two-hundred-odd pages of wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am -- a space-operatic background, a bunch of action, a little gunplay, lots of things going boom, the obligatory tangle of treacheries and crossed motives, and a lick or two of romance; all wrapped up neatly on the last page with a bow and an exit stage left. Even if they're right, though, it would be nice to see results with a little more heft than Mission: Tori.

All right (you might say) what can one reasonably expect from a book blurbed with "Agent Silver's unique talents were her special edge. But on the planet Tori, that edge could get her killed--or drive her mad..."? Well -- writing that doesn't insult my intelligence would be nice. Characters that act really driven and not like a bunch of high-school seniors playing secret agent would be, too. And enough respect for astrophysical fact not to hinge the plot on asteroid fields as thick as flying avalanches would be just peachy.

Maybe the real tragedy of this book is that it doesn't read like cynical hackery; it reads like a best effort by a young woman with good intentions and no clues -- no sense of genre history and what's already been done to death, and not enough grasp on science or human nature to know how to be original even if she knew where to push the envelope.

I could have blown this book off with a capsule review. I've dissected it at length to set up a couple of points it demonstrates which I think are important.

One is for would-be authors: that it's not enough just to have the urge to write; you have to have accumulated enough mental furniture and experience of life that you can write about something. Without the furniture, you're apt to find that all you can write is a bunch of shallow, extended wish-fulfillments that feature you as the not-so-well-disguised star.

The other is for editors. When a ms like Mission: Tori, flies over the transom, do us all a favor and tell the author to go away and grow up. You'll be doing him/her a favor, too.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sat Jun 02 02:15:33 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>