Review: Nophek Gloss
Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite authors, especially when it comes to Science Fiction. So, the fact that he gave this book a blurb held a lot of weight for me. Then, shortly after hearing about the book, the author participated in an online chat that I got to listen to. That experience left me well-enough intrigued to go find the book and put it up fairly high in my EBR-TBR queue. While intriguing though it was, the read left me with a poor impression and more frustration than I’d hoped for, given the fairly impressive introduction I’d been given.
NOPHEK GLOSS, at the very least, has one of the most unique-sounding titles I’ve come across for a Science Fiction book in recent years. It’s the author’s debut novel, and the first in a series that is planned to be expanded upon later this year. Unfortunately, the idea at the heart of the title hardly plays into the story at all.
This is the story of Caiden, an adolescent farmer on a far-flung planet. He’s happy with his life. He lives with his parents and younger sister. He helps take care of their herd of livestock. His life is structured. Simple. Quaint. Then one day the overseers come down from above and everyone gathers to see what they will bring. Instead of something wonderful, they see to the slaughter of all the stock on their farms without giving a reason. Then, the people are all rounded up and piled into a ship that takes them from the only home they’ve known and dumps them on a desert planet. In short order, they find that the planet is populated by a whole lot of Nophek. The Nophek are a wild alien species that seem to be something like a hairy and violently carnivorous hippopotamus. Thus, as Caiden and all the people he knows spill out into the desert, the ravenous beasts rise up and eat everyone. Well, except Caiden. His mother shoves him under a large rock and he manages to survive.
It isn’t long before the Nophek scatter and Caiden begins wandering. He stumbles across a small ship in the desert, and shortly thereafter, a small crew of scavengers that happen to be on the planet. They help Caiden escape with his “salvaged” ship. From there, the story focuses on Caiden’s attempt to deal with the trauma of having everyone he knows killed, and his resultant drive to exact revenge against the aliens that perpetrated this violence.
All told, the beginning of this story isn’t bad. Especially for a debut novel. The prose is a little odd at times, and that’s tough to miss. It has something to do with the author taking terms you’d typically associate with one human sense and then using it within the context of a different human sense. At least, that’s what I got out of the author’s explanation of how she wrote this story. It’s a little off-putting at first, but eventually I got used to it.
The crew members that pick Caiden off of the planet and help him to escape were interesting. They’re a mix if humans and aliens. Characterization and descriptions for each of them are pretty good, and it didn’t take me long to settle into the story as they essentially adopt him as one of their own and help him to figure out where he’s going to fit into civilization. I did find myself questioning why they’re all so immediately nice to him, but it didn’t bother me overly much. The first stop the crew makes is the spaceport of Emporia, where everything can be found… for a price. Up to this point, I was digging the story and ready to see where things went.
By and large the ideas presented in the story are interesting, but have very little explanation to them. So, it’s tough to really get a good idea as to what they’re all about. Definitely *not* hard science fiction here. The concept of “pocket universes” is used… well… universally throughout the book. Universes that contain planets. Universes that contain solar systems. Universes that wrap around certain ships and homes. They felt more like containment force-fields, but we’re told that in some of the various universes, physics are completely different. There are lots of different aliens on display. Some nice. Others, not so much. Body augmentation and manipulation abounds. Along the way, the author tackles lots of different concepts, like inclusiveness and gender-fluidity and the ethics of genocide. Caiden takes these experiences in stride, but continues toward his goal of exacting revenge upon the aliens that killed everyone he ever knew by trying to kill their leader. Frequently with a single-mindedness that ends with him making some poor choices.
NOPHEK GLOSS begins well, but suffers from a lack of scope, characterization, and attention to consequence. Intriguing but disappointing.
The pieces I’ve laid out here definitely all fit within the context of a Science Fiction story. So, it should have been pretty decent. The thing is, there were several issues I had with the book that I just couldn’t swallow. The first one I ran into was an alarming lack of consequence. Several times Caiden is given things that seem extraordinarily large for particular reasons, and then when those reasons are no longer valid… nothing happens as a result. He’s allowed to keep all of his windfall and continue on his journey toward revenge. Now granted, having things happen this way allows him to continue on his quest for revenge, but it kind of killed my expectations of the story quite a bit.
Then there was the issue with scale. If there’s one thing about outer space that should always be true, is that it’s BIG. This didn’t feel big at all. Somewhat varied within a limited context, yes. There are lots of aliens and civilizations and science and stuff that he sees, but nothing anywhere approaching the expansiveness that I’ve come to expect in Science Fiction. Trips between planets take what seems like days, and soon they’re popping between these adjacent universes one right after the other. The story takes loads of time to talk about the issues and aliens and the sciency ideas… and then totally fails on the experience. Imaginative, yeah, but a complete lack of that sense of wonder.
The kicker for me was an ultimate lack of characterization of the main character, Caiden. He ends up coming off as very one-note because of how driven he is toward killing him some “bad aliens”. He makes choices that don’t seem justified. Combine this with the fact that he always seems to get what he needs to keep going, despite how little sense it might make, and there’s no real need to understand how he makes his way toward the climax of the book. The moment he dropped everything and suddenly had the drive to literally “save the puppies”, I just about stopped reading.
This one just didn’t grab me at all. It failed to tell me an engaging story. And then it got kind of ridiculous. Sorry, but this one just didn’t work for me.
- Recommended Age: 14+, mostly for the violence
- Language: Occasionally strong
- Violence: Not much, but when it comes, it can get pretty violent/bloody
- Sex: A few references but nothing overly strong