1/07/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Solaris/Rebellion. 414 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-84416-832-3.
check out websites: www.solarisbooks.com and www.ericbrown.co.uk
'Cosmopath' is the third and final volume in Eric Brown's Science Fiction trilogy set on the Bengal Station spaceport, just above the Bay of Bengal. I reviewed the previous volumes, 'Necropath' and 'Xenopath', over the last two months and was keen to see how Eric Brown would bring the trilogy to a close.
The story picks up four years after the events of 'Xenopath'. Jeff Vaughan, the protagonist, is still working as a telepathic private eye, investigating the cases the police don't have the man-power to deal with. He is on a routine case when he realises he's being followed by an alien. When his boss calls to tell him that the police have found the body of a murdered telepath, the third one that week, Jeff guesses that his stalker is the murderer. He's lucky to survive the following chase, which only ends when spaceport security corner and kill the alien assassin.
Meanwhile, as if Jeff's life hasn't just got complicated enough, his four year-old daughter Li is diagnosed with leukaemia. It can be treated, but the cost of high quality care is much more than he can afford. So when Jeff is offered a well-paid short-term job off-planet, reading the mind of a dying crew member on an exploration ship that crash-landed on Delta Cephei VII one thousand light years away, he reluctantly agrees. He'll be working for a billionaire called Chandrasakar, which could prove difficult for a man who has a deep-seated mistrust of the rich and powerful. However, beggars can't be choosers.
When they arrive on Delta Cephei VII, they are faced by a strange world covered with a leathery but fast-growing fungus. Soon after landing, while the crew are investigating the local area, one of the crew members is captured by some green-skinned humanoids. Jeff tries to follow them, but they disappear through a split in the fungal floor that closes behind them. When Jeff does the job he's been employed for, reading the fleeting mind of the dying survivor from the earlier mission, he realises the truth. The supposed aliens are nothing of the sort. They attacked the earlier ship and shot the woman whose mind he's reading. As she was lying there injured, she heard them speak English. They're not aliens. They're human.
Jeff confronts Chandrasakar, who reluctantly shares the full story. The kidnappers are camouflaged American colonists who settled on the planet two decades earlier. Chandrasakar's exploration ship picked up a faint radio signal from the colonists, intended for the American government and referring to an unidentified but valuable discovery below the surface of the planet. That's the real reason why they're there, to find out what the colonists have discovered.
When the colonists try to exchange their hostage for safe passage back to America, Chandrasakar shows his ruthless streak. As they cross to the ship, he orders his security team to kill them all. The inevitable death of the hostage in the cross-fire is just so much collateral damage.
Now Jeff starts to realise how important the colonists' discovery must be and wonders whether Chandrasakar will stop at anything to possess it. So when they encounter genuine aliens on their way to locate the underground secret, Jeff has to decide just whose side he's on. Will he help Chandrasakar to overwhelm the aliens and steal their secrets or will he resist his new boss's imperialist plans, potentially putting his daughter's medical treatment at risk?
I enjoyed 'Cosmopath' very much and found it a satisfying conclusion to the 'Bengal Station' trilogy. It takes the series protagonist Jeff Vaughan into new areas and surrounds him with a cast of real people and situations that the reader can believe in and care about.
I'll pick out four aspects of the book that I particularly liked. First, the protagonist Jeff Vaughan, who continues to develop as a character in this book as in the previous two. He has grown in stature across the three novels and I would be happy to make his acquaintance again in a future story. Second, the aliens who live beneath the surface of Delta Cephei VII, the Taoth, as they call themselves, are convincingly drawn as a highly advanced species. It is, however, the way that Brown portrays the early communication difficulties between Jeff and the Taoth that made them seem real to me. Third, the planet of Delta Cephei VII, which is covered in fungus above ground but filled with hundreds of caverns where the Taoth live below, struck me as a wonderful creation. Finally, Jon Sullivan's cover art is worth an explicit mention. The cover images on the three books in this trilogy combine into one large and very beautiful picture of an orbiting spaceport, probably the one owned by Chandrasakar, from which Jeff and colleagues leave for Delta Cephei VII. If you want to see what I mean, the picture can be seen at Sullivan's website, www.jonsullivanart.com .
'Cosmopath' is not, however, a perfect book and I'll mention three minor issues I had with it. First, some of the characters are less convincingly drawn than others. The most glaring example of this for me was the billionaire Chandrasakar. For someone who has successfully built up a huge commercial empire spanning hundreds of inhabited worlds, it seems unrealistic to find out, late in the book, that he has not only been duped by his girl-friend, but also by his own head of security, both of whom are foreign agents. Second, a lot of political ideas are discussed throughout the book, principally between the apolitical Jeff and Chandrasakar's girl-friend, a committed communist. I'm a political junkie, so I rather enjoyed this. However, it may be too intrusive for some readers. Finally, a rather nerdy problem. The planet that Jeff travels to in this book is in orbit around the star Delta Cephei in the constellation of Cepheus. This star is well-known to astronomy as it is a variable star, the precursor of the so-called Cepheid variables whose brightness vary regularly. Unfortunately, our detailed knowledge of Delta Cephei makes it very unlikely that the Taoth could have evolved on any planet in that system, as the star is only 100 million years old. In comparison, our own sun and Earth are both 4.6 billion years old and it took over two billion years for life on Earth to evolve beyond bacteria.
In the final judgement, though, these problems are clearly outweighed by the strengths of the book. I think that 'Cosmopath' is a great success, as is the entire 'Bengal Station' trilogy. The central character, Jeff Vaughan, is someone the reader can really care about. The plots in all three books are imaginative and exciting. Overall, though, the best aspect of the trilogy for me is Eric Brown's ability to show us convincingly drawn aliens. The Taoth here join the two previous alien species in 'Xenopath' and 'Necropath' as well-rendered imaginings of what extra-terrestrials might be like. It is this kind of writing that continues to draw me to Science Fiction as a genre. Eric Brown does not disappoint and I would recommend all three novels in the Bengal Station trilogy to any fan of SF.
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