|Epiphyte Book Review||up to review index|
Remember the away teams on the original Star Trek series? Kirk and Spock would always take along one or two anonymous crew members in red uniforms. And the redshirts would invariably die before the first commercial break, shot or crushed or eaten by the alien menace du jour while Kirk chewed the scenery. Expendable by James Alan Gardner is a bitter, amusing story about the exploration of brave new alien worlds, from the point of view of similarly doomed crew.
When the human race joined the interstellar League of Peoples, the humans were given scientific advances that allowed them to make everyone healthy and beautiful and long-lived. And once death of unnatural causes became unheard-of, deaths among the crew of the space-faring Vacuum Fleet had a devastating effect on morale. However, the Admiralty discovered that crew don't get nearly so attached to members who aren't physically attractive, for the same reason that a dead puppy on the road is more upsetting than a flattened armadillo.
So if an infant is born deformed or disfigured, all the resources of twenty-fifth century medicine are brought forth to cure it -- unless it's sufficiently smart, healthy, and psychologically pliable to be trained for the Explorer Corps. Explorers land on hostile alien planets, make contact with hostile alien uglies, and die with appalling frequency, which is why they call themselves ECMs: Expendable Crew Members. Explorer First Class Festina Ramos discovers just how expendable she is when she and her partner are ordered to escort a senile admiral to Melaquin, the planet from which no Explorer has ever returned.
Festina is a very wry narrator whose prickly cynicism doesn't quite hide her idealism. The introductory shipboard scenes are very amusing, but events take on a more serious tone after the Explorers land on the planet. Gardner is improbably successful in setting such a bitter tone with a minimum of angst.
The narrative is broken up into short (one to four page) sections with subheadings. Usually this chops up the story and profoundly irritates me, but here it made it easy to put the book down and pick it up again later; perfect for cynics with short attention spans. Expendable ought to appeal to anyone who's ever taken pity on those poor doomed redshirts.
"Sentients!" Prope said in a hushed tone intended to be dramatic. She had assumed yet another pose, staring at the monitor through narrowed eyes, her head lifted to show the clean white edge of her jaw. "Do you suppose this could be a world of sentients, once great, now fallen? Yet even though the planet lies barren, something has been left behind. Something that has killed before and will kill again..."
"Shit," muttered Chee. "I told the council we shouldn't let Vacuum officers take Pulp Literature as an elective."
-- Christina Schulman.
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