Rating: 4.8 out of 5
Diving into an excellent work of science fiction can be like swimming through a sea of red tape; it’s muddled, sometimes it can tie you down and be more than a little confusing, and yet, once you put everything together, you finally know the answer and the effort it took to get through becomes worth it.
This was my experience reading “Pale Boundaries” by Scott Cleveland.
In truth, this is the first science fiction novel I’ve read since my high-school love of the Cyberpunk micro-genre. At times I found it difficult to keep everything in order – the technical terms tripped me up occasionally and I found myself backtracking constantly, trying to stay the course and understand all that was going on – and because of this, a book whose length I can usually complete in four days took me a little over a week. Now this is not a complaint, mind you; in fact, the act of staying with a book longer than usual struck me as a cathartic experience. By the time I reached the end, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the mind that created the work.
“Pale Boundaries” is the story of Terson Reilly, a young pilot existing on a backwater planet called Algran Asta. The story follows his adventures – from his arrest on his home planet for smuggling Militia weapons, to his relocation to a gorgeous, sun-splashed world named Nivea, where pregnancy laws and environmental controls are draconian, at best. Along the way he works through the guilt of watching his friend back home die a gruesome death, finds love (with a refreshingly strong and intractable woman named Virene), begins a relationship with his probation officer, Malaan Bragg, a noble man whose ignorance of his own society’s corruption will lead him down a rather depressing path, and encounters conflict when he and Virene try and rescue the pilots of a downed shuttle, only to discover that not everything within Nivean society is exactly what it seems.
Terson, himself, is a wonderful character. He is young and brash, following a common trope among science fiction heroes, and yet he is imminently faulted and damaged. He’s prone to violent outbursts, wears his guilt like a designer suit, and is untrusting. His is a grand journey of self-discovery, awakening, loss, self-destruction, and revenge. The many scenes between he and Virene are beautifully portrayed, looping together their naiveté with their not-so-innocent animal passions for each other, bring about a sense of reality and crunchiness to the characters. If we’ve been lucky, we know the lust and dedication for each other they feel…and quite honestly, this is the sort of pragmatic relationship I’ve found lacking in many novels I’ve read recently.
Another character I found fascinating is Halsor Tennison (Hal for short), the facto leader of The Family, a criminal organization that operates out of Nivia’s other large continent. The Family is, as we find out, the real reason behind Nivea’s strict ruling guidelines, which all come about as a way to keep their pockets overflowing through illegal shipping of technology and goods and help to hold down a society of people who also inhabit the Beta Continent – an Asian/Japanese-like culture called the Minzoku. Hal and The Family are constantly at odds with the rulers of these other peoples. He is without a doubt the villain of the piece, and yet his character is fleshed out with as much caring and intensity as Terson’s. In fact, more often than not, you can’t tell he’s the baddie, at all. When he falls in love with the niece of the Minzoku ruler, Dayuki, we admire and root for their relationship as much as we root for Terson and Virene. In fact, it can be said that Hal and Terson are meant to be played against each other in a literary sense; they are mirror images of each other, each possessing strengths and faults that the other doesn’t, which suggests that, had their circumstances been reversed, they might have become each other.
The plot of this book is convoluted in the best of ways. It’s rife with deception and backward dealing, and none of the characters are privy to what the others are doing, which makes for an intriguing read. It also has emotional threads that are surprisingly strong. When Terson suffers the greatest loss of his life, my heart dropped along with his. I saw him give up, and said, “I’m right there with you, brother. I’d have done the same thing.” There is also an exploration of power and culture that makes this much more than a technological thriller. Author Cleveland disperses throughout the text little clues as to why humans have traversed space at all, why Earth is no longer their home, and it made perfect sense. The author has an insight into human behavior that allows him to create this fantastic world and make it, in every way, believable.
In this regard (and many others), this is a great book. I’ve said many times that genre fiction allows us to ingest real and potent problems under the guise of something strange and otherworldly, and Pale Boundaries accomplishes this in spades. From presenting the idea of environmental protection and its drawbacks when the fanaticism involved outlives its practicality to the dangers (both for the suppressed and the suppressors) of xenophobia, it yanks you into the world it’s created and forces you to think about your own world. The examination of mob culture and how much sway they have on our everyday lives is also an interesting thread. All one has to do is look at the history of their own country (no matter where in the world they live) and wonder how much of their society’s success and failure has been the result of the suppression and hegemony of some clandestine group. After all, conspiracy theories don’t exist in a vacuum.
In all, I loved this book. Along with being a fantastic read, it is also the most well refined self-published novel I’ve ever read. The structure is near perfect, and there are scant errors or typos, which is rare in this new world of publishing. Actually, when I look back on it, I don’t understand why this book wasn’t picked up by a publishing house. With a near-flawless construction and a potent (and concise) storyline, I would figure it would attract the attention of at least someone in the industry. I emailed the author to see if he’d ever sent the book out to agents or publishers, and he replied that yes, he had many times without a single bite. This strikes me as both odd and disheartening. If a work as brilliant as this can slip through the cracks, it doesn’t gather much confidence in the decision makers who put out books for the mainstream to read.
(As a side note, though, I feel I must mention the one problem I did have with the book. Although it is well-constructed and near perfect, I reached the end realizing that very few of the plot threads had been resolved, and there is another book due out in 2012 that will continue Terson Reilly’s adventures. This, I feel, should have been known from the start. Unfortunately, it could turn off readers, and this is something that I would find a very, very large disappointment. So please, Mister Cleveland, tell us it’s the first book in a series from the getgo. For this, I dock you (gasp!) one point in execution.)
So go out and purchase this book. It’s a dense read, but well worth it. And perhaps you’ll come out on the other side the same way I did; mystified, impressed, and feeling more than a little enlightened.
Plot - 9
Characters - 10
Voice - 10
Execution - 9
Personal Enjoyment – 10
Overall – 48/50 (4.8/5)
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