In January, the Arizona writing community lost one of its most prominent members, Alan Black.
I knew him a little, having hawked my wares alongside him on a number of occasions, most obviously at the last couple of Phoenix Comicons, and enjoyed his company in a more social setting. He was a friendly, caring and decent human being and he was always willing to share his considerable knowledge without ever seeming pushy or closed to new possibilities. I learned a great deal from him.
And I realised that, while I remember him well as a person, I don't remember him as a writer because I've never got round to reading any of his books. There's no better time to remedy that than the present, so I picked 'Empty Space' off my autographed shelf to, so I thought, start into. It was maybe one o'clock in the morning and I was going to be up early the next day as we were hosting a friend from England, so had places to go and things to do. By the time I closed the book, it was five o'clock in the morning and I was done.
This novel absorbed me utterly, in a way that I remember from my youth reading authors like Robert Heinlein, Alan's most obvious literary comparison. I was far from surprised to find at his memorial that he first discovered science fiction with Heinlein's 'Tunnel in the Sky', as, coincidentally, did his wife, DuAnn; I could have guessed that from the 'Stobor F-3s' that are flown in this book. It wasn't my first of his juveniles but it's still my favourite, however many times I re-read them all.
York August Sixteen, the hero of this novel, is very much a Heinlein hero, though there are some aspects to his character that surprised me and move this book to a slightly different category than any Heinlein juvenile. Even though it takes us no more than four pages to discover the beginnings of that, I'm going to avoid talking about it because you deserve to experience it as you experience York. He's a fascinating soul, often traditional but occasionally very contemporary indeed, an intriguing mixture indeed.
York has been a misfit from the day he was born, his name a product of his circumstances. He was named by the orphanage at which he was dumped, his surname marking the year he was born and his first name tied to the order in which he arrived: York for Y, which will apparently be the 24th letter of the alphabet in the 26th century. He's a 'budger', a government budget line item, which means that all good things are beyond his reach, though charity case quotas give him the illusion of a chance. He just hasn't realised this yet, which believable naïveté sparks our plot.
You see, he's made the mistake of winning in a culture that doesn't just want him to fail, it doesn't want to even acknowledge the possibility that he might not. Selected for the New Hope Officer's Academy as a quota entrant, he graduates top of his class, against all the many odds that are stacked against him. That could be a book in itself, but we start immediately after that point, as the ramifications of that start to manifest themselves. York is set up, caught between a rock and a hard place, stuck in a queue for most of a year and eventually given a posting in the last place anyone could ever want, as a communications officer on a space station, Em. T-Sp8s, 'so far past nowhere that you can't even see nowhere from there.'
And, of course, out there in the back end of beyond, he finds that the universe has a way of enforcing its own sense of karma. There's action and adventure, naturally, and that's handled capably well, but it's the rest of what Alan Black puts into this book that enthralled me. It's what happens in the gaps between the action and the adventure, as York finds ways to survive and succeed, whatever bad situation he's thrown into next. He's continually given a stacked deck but he continually finds a way to play winning hands and that's vastly satisfying. I'm English and we love our underdogs; York is very much an underdog to get behind.
What's especially enjoyable is that he's not always facing off against human opponents, such as the usual bullies who don't like him one-upping their entitled asses in the Yards. Sometimes, he's merely facing off against situations, but that's where his ingenuity really kicks into high gear. While the journey to Em. T-Sp8s is a relatively traditional one, the time he spends on this space station is far from traditional. We're set up to read this as space opera, in which grand things will no doubt happen in grand ways, but we feel like we're a long way from the action, stuck precisely nowhere with a cast of characters that's been decreased to one. Most authors wouldn't touch this scenario with someone else's ten-foot-pole, but I have to say that it's an absolute joy and surely my favourite part of the book. York Sixteen is a fantastic character and it's scenes like these that underline that in red ink.
There are downsides here, though they're relatively inconsequential. The villains, in particular, are overt in their villainy and could well have done with their own healthy doses of reality. York racks up more complexity by the end of the first chapter than they collectively manage throughout and their part in what will unfold is rather clichéd. However, they're really not the point of the book and shouldn't matter; they can be fairly lumped in with the System as the unworthy opponent over which York will eventually emerge victorious and this book is much more about how he does that than the mere fact that he does. We could even read them as clichéd only in York's eyes, because he's a man of imagination and wants a lot more from everything around him than tends to be there.
'Empty Space' was far from Alan's first novel. It was first published in 2014 after a string of other science fiction novels, including 'Metal Boxes', the first volume in his best-selling and award-winning series which will reach a fourth in October. He's also written historical fiction, general fiction and even a western, but it's the science fiction that he's mostly known for and which I will now gradually explore. If this is one of the 'also by' entries in his bibliography, then I'm surely in for a treat.
Thanks for the lost sleep, Alan, both here and in advance. ~~ Hal C F Astell