01/05/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Solaris/Rebellion. 414 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-84416-649-7).
check out websites: www.solarisbooks.com and www.ericbrown.co.uk
Eric Brown is a prolific British Science Fiction author who deserves to be better known than he is. He has been a published author for over twenty years, having had his first short story published by 'Interzone' in 1987, has written twelve novels and has won the BSFA Award twice for his short stories. 'Necropath' is the first novel in a trilogy published by Solaris over the last eighteen months. I'll be reviewing the other two volumes shortly. For anyone who has read a lot of Brown's work, it's worth noting in passing that some parts of 'Necropath' were previously published as the novel 'Bengal Station'.
'Necropath' is the story of Jeff Vaughan, a telepath employed by the Bengal Station spaceport, one kilometre above the Bay of Bengal. His job is to find illegal immigrants trying to get to Earth on board the voidships that arrive from all over the galaxy. He suspects that the spaceport's Director Weiss is helping to smuggle someone or something onto Bengal Station and calls in a police colleague, Chandra, to help him find out what's going on. However, when Weiss commits suicide in custody rather than submit to questioning, the trail of evidence leads them to an apocalyptic religious cult newly arrived on the station.
Down in Bangkok, Sukara is a young prostitute, left with a disfiguring scar across her face after being slashed by a drunken punter. Nowadays, her main clientele are visiting telepathic aliens, who seem to value her innocent mind over her damaged body. She dreams of getting back together with her younger sister, Pakara, who left her five years earlier and travelled to Bengal Station to escape from prostitution. When a rich and handsome human telepath called Osborne turns up at the bar where she plies her trade and shows a particular interest in her, she can't believe her luck.
When Vaughan infiltrates the cult that Weiss killed himself to protect, he finds out how persuasive their drug-fuelled rites are when he takes part in one himself. The focus is on Elly Jenson, a young child seen as a Christ-like saviour figure, and Vaughan almost succumbs to their suicidal fantasies of redemption. Convinced of the danger they pose, Vaughan and Chandra travel to Verkerk's World, where the cult, the child and the smuggling all come from, in a race against time to find out what's planned for Bengal Station and how to stop it.
At the same time, Osborne persuades Sukara to follow him up to Bengal Station. She soon realises that he is out to gain revenge on a former telepath colleague for a personal tragedy that took place many years earlier. That colleague? Vaughan.
Before long, Vaughan is on several people's hit lists and whatever he does, they always seem to be one step ahead of him. Can he find out what's going on and stop it, before either the cult or Osborne silence him for good?
'Necropath' was a real success for me. I'll highlight three reasons why. The first is the depth of the characterisation. Jeff Vaughan is the tortured nihilist who has almost given up on humanity and himself, yet can't quite stand aside when others need his help. He may sound like a well-worn stereotype but Brown imbues the character with solidity and depth. Other well-drawn characters include Sukara and Chandra, both of whom jump off the page and force you to care what happens to them next. The second is the alien creature, known as the Vaith, which is central to the religious cult and appears near the end of the book. Vaughan's conversation with this creature, when he finally locates it, shows us a very alien, yet deeply sympathetic life-form, a true sign of quality SF. The third high point is the authenticity which Brown gives to the society on Bengal Station. This is a place that you can see, hear and virtually smell.
I found two elements of the story slightly problematic. The first is the question of what happens to Elly Jenson, the young girl being used by the religious cult as their Christ-like figurehead. Vaughan almost rescued her from her kidnappers early in the story, putting her plight front and centre, yet we never find out what subsequently happened to her. Did she live or was she sacrificed to the Vaith? We aren't told.
My second problem is a practical one. We are told that Bengal Station sits just one kilometre above the Earth's surface. This seems impractical for a free-floating platform. How would it stay up there? Why wouldn't you build it hundreds of kilometres up in orbit, as it appears to be portrayed on the book's cover? However, if it's not free-floating then it must surely be a large static tower built from the ground up. If that's the case, why are we told that Vaughan's police colleague Chandra, who was born on the station, has never been down to Earth? This makes no sense, since it would surely be as simple as getting a lift to the ground floor of a very large tower-block. This confusion spoiled my enjoyment of what is otherwise a colourful and densely-textured setting for the story.
Putting these minor weaknesses aside though, 'Necropath' is an exciting SF thriller which displays Brown's talent for character-driven storylines in an interesting plot and vibrant setting. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to learning what happens to Jeff Vaughan in the next book in the trilogy, 'Xenopath'.
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