By Robert Boyczuk
At a time when it seems everyone is running away from genre labels, it’s refreshing to find Toronto-based ChiZine Publications giving readers the straight goods in these two novels. Not “speculative fiction” (a redundant compound if ever there was one), but authentic science fiction adventures complete with spaceships, ray guns, hovercars, cryogenic chambers, and lots of green, tentacled aliens.
To say that these are traditional SF novels featuring conventional genre devices is not to write them off as formulaic or unoriginal. The best SF, for one thing, is always a sort of commentary on current events and contemporary anxieties, and so is always changing. The Nexus in Robert Boyczuk’s Nexus: Ascension is an intergalactic G20, a super-government of advanced civilizations that may or may not be behind a mysterious plague that has wiped out the entire population of the Earth-like planet Bh’Haret (traditional SF also has a fondness for names one can only guess at how to pronounce).
After a team of deep-space long-haulers returns to Bh-Haret and discovers what has happened they set out for the Nexus “hub” on a quest for answers, and revenge. The colourful cast of characters includes a religious fanatic waiting for the Rapturesque “Dissolution,” a human-computer hybrid whose brain has been cut in two to increase its processing power, and a mysterious fellow with scrimshaw teeth.
Of course everyone has a partially hidden agenda, and Boyczuk, author of a previous collection of horror and “dark” SF stories, skillfully ratchets up the suspense as these secret motives are exposed. Well-punctuated with dramatic set pieces and thrills that are often sharp and bloody, the whole thing culminates in a spectacularly messy, and thoroughly satisfying, finale. Some of the complex back story is left a little murky and underdeveloped, but overall this is an ambitious novel that delivers on all its promises.
If Nexus: Ascension is space opera in the grand manner, Gord Zajac’s Major Karnage is space operetta in the satirical mode. Major John “Karnage” Karneski is a demobilized soldier who now finds himself stuck in a psychiatric ward with a rage governor attached to the back of his neck, threatening to explode his head if he gets too angry. After the Great Peace, society no longer has any need for gods of war like Karnage. The world has been thoroughly pacified and Disney-fied by the Dabney corporation, a ubiquitous multinational that has branded everything with a cartoon feline mascot named Dabby Tabby. Even the police force, the Dabneycops, are Dabney employees who wear Dabby Tabby helmets.
Into this idyllic future comes an alien menace, the “squidbugs”: “giant squidbuggy things with squiddy heads atop of buggy bodies.” The Dabneycops, armed with bubble-gum firing goober guns, are no match for the “long, phallic, and menacing” ray guns of the squidbugs, and so Major Karnage is soon out of retirement defending humanity from a squiggly invasion.
It’s essentially an oversize comic book adventure, but the pedal stays on the metal with non-stop action from start to finish. Many of the individual elements will strike genre fans as being familiar – the giant sand worms, the alien bodysnatchers, even the concept of a super-soldier called upon to save a world fallen away from its martial values – but given the sheer imaginative exuberance and frantic pace nothing about it seems stale or clichéd. Zajac also shows how it doesn’t take much of a twist to turn tried-and-true conventions to parodic effect. A lot of genre fiction walks just such a fine line.
ChiZine is a new small press, but one that is already making a big name for itself by publishing some great new talent. Perhaps the most impressive thing about these two books is that they are both first novels; evidence that the future is in good hands.
Review first published online November 21, 2011.