Thursday, January 3, 2013

Radiant by James Alan Gardner

I have a problem with Gardner's work -- he is good writer and I enjoy his writing, but I have no interest in reading about his main character, Festina Ramos.  I had a similar problem with Kage Baker, whose writing I enjoyed, but I had absolutely no tolerance for Mendoza.  So this is a problem, if I am going to try to read Gardner.  I quite enjoyed Trapped, which was Festina-free, and I tolerated Vigilant, in which she had a fairly minor role.  So when I picked up Radiant I was hoping that I wouldn't see too much of Festina, as she wasn't the point of view character.  Unfortunately this was not a good Gardner.

The setting is in the future, and humans have joined the League of Peoples, a confederation of many races, most of them more powerful than humans.  Our main characters are members of the Explorers Corps, who are sent on highly dangerous missions to strange planets, with the full understanding many of them will be killed.  But that's okay, because they are unattractive, and therefore Expendable -- a study has shown that personnel are more upset by the death of an attractive companion than an unattractive one, so ugly people are forced into life-threatening situations because they don't matter.  If you can buy this utterly stupid premise, then perhaps you can swallow the rest of the implausibilities Gardner throws in.

In Radiant, we follow the adventures of a young Expendable as she is infected and infested by a higher life form that intends to use her to achieve its own goals.  She is paired up with Admiral Festina Ramos and they are stranded on a planet and likely to die unless they can figure out how to fix things that went badly wrong there in the past.  They are teamed up with Tut, a companion who is both charming and insane, and a couple of supposed diplomats who are anything but diplomatic.

Randiant is a book that I liked less and less the further I read.  Which, now that I think about it, was also my reaction to Expendable, the first in the series, in which Festina Ramos is introduced.  But it wasn't just the characters and the heavy thumb of the author obviously manipulating the scale to create an extreme situation that I didn't like, I don't really think it's even very good science fiction.  Yes, it's set in the future on another planet. Yes, the problem involves alien technology.  But on another level, it's all much too easy.  It isn't about understanding the alien technology or figuring out what's happening, because whenever they get stuck someone shows up to explain things to them, conveniently in a language they understand.  And subduing the alien power that is causing the problem is dealt with as simply as Festina looking at some machinery and pulling out a wire more or less at random.  It also seemed that the long-gone alien race whose planet they were exploring were, though physically different than humans, mentally not really very alien at all.

It seems, instead, that the story is more about themes of storytelling and heroism and finding a deeper meaning than it is about the trappings of science fiction, and thus as a work of science fiction it's breezy and superficial and just sort of annoying.  There are too many things I was asked to swallow that I simply could not.  And so I do not know if I will bother to read any more works by this author.  I see potential, and I want to give him another chance, but this material is just not working for me at all.