Space Captain Smith
by Toby Frost
Review by Marcus Gipps
Myrmidon Books Ltd Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781905802135
Date: 06 May 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Well, this was a bit different. I was drawn in by the cover, a blatant homage to George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series. That and the blurb made it clear that Myrmidion (a small and relatively new player in UK publishing) are going for that general look and feel but with a sf slant, which is an interesting idea in and of itself.
The book is almost exactly as silly as it looks and sounds, which is no bad thing, especially as it manages to maintain a core of real interest at the same time. Space Captain Smith, stiff-upper-lipped and not too bright, believes he's the best thing since sliced bread. The British Space Empire doesn't really agree, to be honest, which is why he's given a run-down spaceship and a pointless job to do. Of course, the pointless job turns out to be vital, with the fate of the whole Empire at stake, and provides the author with the chance to throw in as many pastiches of science-fiction as the book can bear. Probably a few more than that to be honest, as there are probably a number of references I missed! And it's not just SF, -- it seems as if Frost has thrown nods to almost everything he can think of into the book, and at times it can become a little wearying trying to work out why something seems quite so familiar.
The setting works well on two levels, which I suspect may be the book's greatest strength. On the one hand we have a recognisably realistic (well, as far as possible within the constraints of the subject!) and thought-through version of the British Empire in Space, with all the humour that entails, and on the other we have a (occasionally overdone) bit of science fiction world-building. Not in the terribly dreary sense of maps and history and paragraphs that derail the book while they tell you about this really cool idea the author had, but in the sense that a lot of thought has clearly gone into making everything fit. The aliens are bug-eyed, the spaceships are anachronistic, the hippies are despised and the whole thing manages to makes sense, albeit in an odd way.
Plot-wise, there isn't really much to worry about. Go into space, collect the girl, avoid dying, rescue the Empire &etc, but it all rolls along happily enough, and keeps the interest up. It isn't really a book that needs a plot, though -- this kind of pastiche lives or dies on good characterisation, funny jokes and intelligence, and thankfully Space Captain Smith has all of those things. Smith himself is a fantastic creation and has his heart in the right place, I suppose, although he's clearly a product of his Empire (I'm not used to reading books with quite such conservative lead characters!). The supporting cast work well too, from the bloodthirsty and 'savage' alien who is quite clearly more intelligent than most of the other people in the book to the pleasure android who can't ever quite prevent herself from talking in innuendos and double entendres. The bad guys range from the terrible ant-like Ghast to the utterly un-British Republic of New Eden, although we don't really get to see all that much of their backgrounds - something that will surely be rectified in a future sequel.
It can all get a little puerile at times, certainly -- perhaps too much so, as I felt there was a more intelligent book hiding beneath some of the crudity (although perhaps the inherent straight-lacedness of Smith infected me) -- but overall a fun read that managed to convince me that it was more than a one-good-idea book. There's a feeling that this novel might not work for someone who didn't at least know a bit about science-fiction, purely because a lot of the humour would pass them by, but the publishers are obviously trying to capture the mainstream market, and the cover is just brilliant, so they might well have a chance. It seems to be a fair assumption that there will be more in the series, and if Frost can come up with a stronger plot, they might end up being worth following in their own right, not just as a joke.