Coming out of Retirement
Review of "Detroit Hammersmith, Zero Gravity Toilet Repairman (retired)" and "Soldier of the Brell"
Few stories could live up to the promise of the title of Suzanne Palmer’s story in the September 2016 issue of Analog. “Detroit Hammersmith, Zero Gravity Toilet Repairman (Retired)” is practically a story by itself. The title is so effective and communicative that when the first paragraph mentions how the maintenance crew of Aldruna station is “a competent lot” we’ve already got enough context to process that information. By station we mean space and if there is a problem with the toilets on Aldruna it must be a major problem if it is going to bring Detroit Hammersmith out of retirement.
As it turns out Aldruna is hosting some kind of galactic diplomatic conference, the fate of which is endangered by a cascading failure of the zero gravity toilets. The problem is so severe and enigmatic that it pulls Detroit Hammersmith, Deet, out of retirement. Though he must admit he had nothing better to do. The plot moves quickly from there as Deet finds out the source of the problem is tiny acid spitting frog-like aliens. The origin of the frogs turns out to be a mystery of less than novel proportions. The suspects for planting the xeno-animals are a couple of rude diplomats and a petty and condescending bureaucrat. The frogs though are more than just pests to Deet. This plague of frogs doesn’t repulse Deet, but rather fills him with nostalgia for his days as a boy playing on rural Earth. (Of all the characters in the story the frogs are the most sympathetic.) This being a science-fiction story, things end exactly as you would expect and Deet leaves the story as the new Ambassador to the frog home world of Bom.
The story made me smile a few times while reading it, and the technophilic parts of the story covered some new ground for me. (There is actually a lot of toilet repair in the story.) But the plot, the twist, and the supporting characters were all obvious and more derivative than necessary. For example, that angry bullying bureaucrat, Biner, felt like he was just pulled out of the clip art file. I personally thought Deet could have been given a bit more personality because in the end he maybe stoic, thoughtful and clever but he is never given a chance to be funny or more interesting than the problem at hand. One trick the story does pull off is to inject a tone of a romantic naturalism into a tale that takes place entirely on a largely zero-G space station.
I enjoyed this story. It wasn’t a mind-blowing sci-fi yarn and I didn’t rush out to share it with friends, but it was clever and competently told. It takes an old sci-fi trope, the pests that are actually a misunderstood intelligence (this applies to at least 1 in 5 Star Trek episodes) and uses that as a platform to take us somewhere few sci-fi stories have dared to go before: the plumbing.
Nobody in David Scholes novella Soldier of the Brell (2016 available on Amazon) uses the bathroom. The forces at work in Soldier of the Brell have more important things to deal with than plumbing, diplomacy or nostalgic recollections of childhood that highlight how technology has distanced us from the simple wonder of nature. Soldier of the Brell is the story of a battle between all-powerful forces of good and evil for control of the multiverse.
The story starts a long time ago with the destruction of the Brell. The Brell are a benevolent race of hyper-technological humans that protect the Universe and hang out with Times Guardian. (that is not a typo on my part, it is not Time’s Guardian, it is Times Guardian). They essentially rule the universe and protect the time stream. How do we know this? Because the author tells us this is the case.
The first chapter of the book is written in a biblical tone, not unlike the in between chapters in Alan Patton’s Cry, the Beloved Country or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In this first chapter, we are told how an evil force seduced the other intelligent races of the galaxy/universe to attack the Brell homeworld and wipe out the Brell. The dark forces succeed in killing all the Brell except for one who escapes by moving forward in time with the goal of seeking revenge. He is the only Brell to do this, the rest of the scattered survivors attempt to protect the distant colonies and allies that remain. This single act of distinction is the only real suggestion that this character may have a personality beyond fearless heroics. There is not a lot of character interaction in this story or characters period. I was about 25% of the way through this book before two characters actually have a conversation. It was stilted and unnatural, but they still talked. And despite the overlong exposition, I was still willing to give the book a chance at this point. That was a mistake.
I have never read anything like Soldier of the Brell before (all though it does share a lot of narrative themes with Netflix short Kung Fury; all be it without a sense of humor). Soldier of the Brell is ostensibly an action/military sci-fi thriller with strong religious overtones. Yet, there is very little sci-fi. Most the action occurs via conflicts between “God Power” and “ Residual Brell Power”. Additionally, the action is horribly imagined and described. Most of the battles consist of the super-powerful heroes expelling energy from their bodies/armor and destroying their enemies. The good guys win because they are stronger. They don’t outsmart the bad guy, they don’t have to grow as characters to defeat the bad guy, there is teamwork but it is only incidental, and they don’t sacrifice anything of relevance to beat the bad guy. Thus, the defeat of the bad guy is meaningful only if we care about the good guys.
It is hard to care about the protagonists because they aren’t fully realized people. The only thing that brought me a little way into this story was that the final battle between the Soldier of the Brell kicks off on Alien occupied Earth. The closest we get to a real character is named Urrle and he is some sort of intergalactic mercenary (it is not really clear) that ends up on Alien occupied Earth (They are just called Aliens, there is not good an explanation even though they try). Urrle makes a quick tour of Earth’s surviving military units hiding out in the Falklands and Afghanistan, he makes a few cute comments and then opens a can of whoop-ass on the Aliens. After Urrle enters the fight it is all galaxy wide salvos of Brell power and wholesale destruction of the bad guys. Once Odin of Asgard comes out of retirement wielding Thor’s hammer, the bad guy doesn’t stand a chance. Now you may be tempted to ask where did Odin come from? Don’t. You should instead ask yourself why a retired plumber with an affection for frogs is a more compelling character and hero than a time traveling super-soldier and the all-father of Asgard?