The Republispouse was looking to get me some gag gifts for Christmas this year, and stumbled across a couple of novels "By" Bruce Boxleitner in the local Family Dollar. With it's lurid cowboy front cover that would make Louis L'amour wince, and it's Babylon 5 Promotional Photo rear cover showing Boxleitner in an Earthforce uniform, flashing his "Hi, I'm Handsome!" smile, it is just one painfully embarrassing book to be seen holding in public.
My wife instantly knew she had a hit, and picked it up. As an added bonus, hidden behind it on the dollar rack was Boxleitner's sequel, with almost-as-lurid cover, and the same goofy-assed portrait of the "Author" on the back. She got the both of them for a whopping two dollars total, and gave 'em to me. (If you're interested, my other gifts from her were a tiny Chairface Chippendale figure from The Tick, and an autographed photo of Milla Jovovich. It was a lean Christmas. What can I say? The Democrats are back in power...)
Later, bored and stricken with insomnia, I started reading the first book. I'd actually heard of these a year or so before, and knew they were a blending of the Western and Science Fiction genres. There's nothing new in that – "Firefly" did largely the same thing during it's brief run, and every incarnation of Trek seems required by law to have a Wild West episode for no particular reason, not to mention the "Wild Wild West" series which often veered into SF territory – but it is at least comparatively thinly mined territory. Having yawned as many times as one can constructively yawn in a day without actually getting tired, I knuckled in and started reading. I was fully prepared for it to be awful.
What I was not prepared for was a Comedy of Manners.
I don't mean 'comedy' in the fall down hilarious sense that we see in the (animated) Tick series, or some of Milla's performances, and which we utterly fail to see in the pathetic and wrong live-action Tick series. Rather I mean it in the boring old English major sense wherein many of Shakespear's works are regarded as comic genius despite the fact that not a damn thing funny happens in them. In other words, it's a Comedy because Stuff Goes Wrong, though none of it is terribly humorous. And in this particular Comedy, stuff goes wrong mostly because no one fully understands the customs – manners – of the others. This was unexpectedly subtle and effective, and though the book never quite hangs together as a cohesive hole, it was at least an interesting direction to take things in, and prevents the book from being an abject failure as well.
Without giving away too much of the plot, a Human raised by Aliens as a sort of spy crashlands in the Arizona desert October 22, 1881. Of course he's got Amnesia as a result of the crash, so he has no memory of who he is, why he's there, how he got there, or life beyond Earth. He's got a pocket full of money, a hunk of alien hardware living in his chest, and an encyclopedic knowledge of English and Weapons, but damn little else. Eventually he winds up in Tombstone, Arizona, and becomes embroiled in the events leading up to the Shootout At The OK Corral. In addition, there are some nasty not-at-all-human aliens called the Kar'agh chasing him, a widowed Tombstone woman who feels the first flutter of love since her husband died when she sees him, and a hot chick with a piece of machinery living in her chest and not a lot of clothes to hide it which further complicate matters.
Most of what works in this book – and there's a surprising amount of stuff that does – is comparison and contrast between the cultures at war here: The Stranger Without A Memory, who basically represents the modern reader in a somewhat bewildered state versus the undeniably primitive milieu that is Tombstone; the contrast between basic human values of love and friendship versus the S&M Nightmare on (multiple) legs that is the Kr'agh; between the Indians and the White Man; between the Pioneers and later, more civilized settlers; between girls who go down and ones who don't (really); between Southerners (the Clantons) and Yankees (The Erps); between science and superstition; and so forth. I don't want to give the impression that this is an incredibly deep book – it isn't – but it touches on all these themes, and when it does it's interesting and entertaining. When it strays from these, however, it also strays from its strengths, and you sort of long for it to get back to the more metaphorical stuff.
The biggest flaw the book has is that there are two parallel plots: The Shootout At The OK Corral, and our protagonist attempting to figure out who and what he is while the Kr'agh hunt him down. Though these plots weave in and out of each other somewhat, they never quite come together in a way that does either much satisfaction. The plot moves inexorably towards the Shootout, and then it happens, and by that point, it's got little to do with our protagonist and nothing at all really to do with the larger issues surrounding him. Despite a bit of forced cross-pollination between the two stories, they're largely independent of each other. Another fundamental problem is that while this story is more or less self contained, it leaves the door a little too obviously wide open for the inevitable sequel, which, you'll recall, my wife also purchased for a book. I would have preferred a little more denouement and a little less cliffhanger.
The middle third drags a bit. There's a laborious setup where our protagonist is hired by the Erps to act as a spy for them, but little or nothing of note comes of this, it just fills space. Likewise, there are several scenes where the Chick With Not Many Clothes attempts to contact the protagonist, but is repeatedly rebuffed by the aforementioned Widow who's got a crush on said protagonist. These exchanges are exercises in frustration, as they serve no purpose other than to keep the frequently naked Chick With Not Many Clothes away from the guy, thus delaying a number of answers about who he is, and thereby padding out the novel to a more or less standard 320 pages or so.
On the other hand, the normally annoying amnesiac plot device is handled exceptionally well for a change. Essentially, from the moment the book picks up, we know more about the protagonist than he himself does, and it's kind of fun for us to watch him figure it out. Also, the Kr'agh are pretty good as pulp fiction bad guys go. They're an H.R.Gigeresque sort of nightmare, all black and nasty and beweaponed with cutters and claws and feeder-hands and throat-wrists and slasher-feet and smelling of corpses and decked out in all sorts of vaguely insectoid sounding bits of biological nastiness. They are suitably vicious and vile and predatory, and although they aren't up to the level of the Shadows from B5, they are above the league of the Aliens from Alien. The insights into their thoughts are adequately well thought out, though not as clear as, say, Larry Niven's K'zin. They're creepy and bad and that's all that's really required of them, so it's fun that they're fleshed out more than this story really requires. It gives the feeling of veracity.
Two things of note: (1) This book was credited to Bruce Boxleitner as, I dunno, a PR thing, or an attempt to expand his career, or whatever; but it was really written by William Keith, a very well established SF writer with more than 80 published books to his credit. (2) In the initial reviews of the book I read while researching it for this review, people griped about the scenes of rather brutal evisceration. There are some of these in the book, but they're much more mild than the reviews had led me to anticipate.
In conclusion, the book is a pretty good pulp SF tale told in an interesting way, and well worth a buck. While it's not a classic, it's much, much, much better than it has any right to be, and that in and of itself is rather surprising.