Scat is Jim Graham’s first novel. Best described as a hard science-fiction thriller, the dialogue-driven plot revolves around ruthless resource-based political machinations worthy of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Like Dune, there is also a struggle for planetary independence. While lacking the mystical allure of Herbert’s Muad’ Dib, the book’s main character - hard-nosed laconic ex-soldier, Scat - makes a far more believable rebel leader. We follow his travels and exploits throughout the novel. However, Graham has chosen to use multiple points of view so we sometimes briefly see things through the eyes of other characters.
Events unfold in a number of distinct locales, each one very distant from the others. Notable among these are the Sinai desert on Earth, a mining camp on the small airless planet Prebos, the wonderfully depicted Go Down City on the planet Trevon, and a secret base on planet Runnymede run by the villain of the piece, the giant oppressive corporation Lynthax (an entity so powerful that it has its own warships).
Scat comes to life fairly well, although his low-key, stay out of trouble style means it takes a while to get the sense of him. We more quickly get a good feel for his more expressive friend, “Birdie” Goosen. The novel’s most easily grasped character is Lynthax’s vicious head of planetary security, Petroff. Baddies are seldom subtle. Other characters tend to be just names.
The novel has some notable lines. Graham is himself ex-military and only a soldier would understand the level of risk well enough to write, “The occasional round ripped through the air a little ways off, and the rocks crunched underfoot, but other than that it was remarkably peaceful.” The rest of us would be making like sheets of paper on the ground! Later, Scat gets into an up elevator on Trevon, a near-Earth-gravity world, after spending six weeks in the low-gravity mining camp on Prebos. Graham neatly captures his character’s weakened state with, “It was a brutally fast ride.”
There are also occasional evocative pieces of descriptive writing. I would like to have seen a few more of these. My favourite is the moody silent “bus” ride from the Trevon spaceport to Go Down City. Graham crisply depicts the bleak barren landscape, the snow blowing across the road, and lays on an absorbing description of the city lodged within an immense 450-metre-deep gash in the frozen planet’s surface.
The underground mining camp on Prebos is reminiscent of the titanium operation in “Outland,” the sci-fi thriller where Sean Connery plays the beleaguered outpost sheriff. As in the movie, we get a realistic look at rough tough working men in a dangerous and stressful workplace where off-hours entertainment is limited.
While the overall tone of the novel is sober, Graham works in flashes of humour: the running gag about Scat’s escalating number of salaries is a treat. To add even more spice, we have a mysterious derelict alien vessel replete with bizarre technology. This provides a terrific late plot twist that moves the novel onto a completely new plane and, presumably, sets up for the sequel.
The plot twists a number of times as the story progresses. Just when you think you see where things are going, they suddenly start going somewhere else. I enjoyed this immensely. My interest level got a nice boost at every turn.
At the cost of extending an already lengthy review, I want to say something about an important question raised by Graham’s novel (I love speculative fiction that does this): who will take humankind into space? It is already clear that it will not be government. Politicians are useless here because electors will not vote for massive expenditures on what can only be a speculative adventure – at least in the early going. Like it or not, the job must be done by huge corporations. They are the only entities with both the financial resources and the freedom of decision-making necessary to shoulder the risk. Graham is making the valid point that once such powerful well-funded organizations get beyond the reach of Earth-bound governments there will be no one there to make sure they behave themselves. Democratic nations must ensure that wherever corporations go, proper responsible government goes with them.
Scat is a big, intelligent, interesting novel. If you enjoy hard gritty sf with plenty of well-handled dialogue, you will not go far wrong with this one.
(reviewed 9 months after purchase)