Expendable

Review: Expendable, by James Alan Gardner

Publisher: Eos
Copyright: July 1997
ISBN: 0-380-79439-X
Pages: 337

In the far future, most of mankind has joined the League of Peoples, a collective of very advanced starfaring species with some strict rules about civilized behavior. Still, humans want to explore, and exploring is still dangerous. Explorers die a lot, and dead crew members are bad for morale. The death of an ugly person isn't as bad for morale as the death of a normal-looking person, though, and thus the idea of the Expendables is born.

An Expendable Crew Member is someone who was born with some sort of physical deformity that doesn't interfere with their mental acuity or ability to perform their job, but which makes them ugly. Most of these deformities are curable, but the Technocracy declines to do so since intelligent ugly people are too useful as explorers. ECMs get to do all of the interesting and dangerous work in space, and if they die, well, it's a lot easier for the crew to deal with.

Yes, I have a hard time writing this with a straight face.

The basic idea of this book is frankly absurd (and if you think that there's a subtle point being made about perceptions and judging books by their covers, rest assured that it isn't subtle in the slightest, nor is it particularly deep). The degree of coordination and effort this society would have to put into keeping chosen people ugly for a fairly marginal benefit in an area that governments are not well-known for caring much about is rather unbelievable. Caste systems that can be broken out of with the help of a single grey-market plastic surgeon using technology that is stated to be readily available aren't very convincing.

This in and of itself isn't a fatal problem, since it's played somewhat for laughs and clearly over the top, but the constant angst over personal appearance gets a little tiring after a while.

A more serious problem is that, after a pretty solid start and a nice humorous space opera background involving some enjoyably quirky characters, the book gets dragged into an extended low-tech meander across a not particularly interesting planet in the company of a one-trick semi-alien who acts like a spoiled ten-year-old. There are some interesting, if not particularly credible, ideas underlying the native species of this planet, but not interesting enough for the length of time spent on them. In a book with ideas that are mostly sight gags and don't hold up under a great deal of scrutiny, keeping things moving right along is very important and the middle third of the book just doesn't.

The last third improves slightly, with some okay if not particularly great action sequences involving a badly telegraphed villain (I saw all of the plot twists coming from pages away, and I don't try to see through plot twists). The world background just didn't retain enough credibility for me to swallow the ending, though. The constant focus on fairly shallow angst over physical appearance combined with the too-neat political solution thanks to the all-powerful, all-watching League of Peoples overseers who serve as a convenient way of altering human behavior to make the plot easier just didn't work for me.

It's a shame. I was hoping to like this book, as I'd previously read Trapped by the same author in a different portion of the same universe and liked it a great deal. This is his first novel, and I know he gets better later on, particularly with pacing. I see that he keeps using the Expendable concept in later books, and I'm curious to see if he manages to salvage it into something more believable. The League of Peoples idea is a very good one when it's not being used as a plot device, and his alien societies feel like they have the potential to be quite interesting. This book, though, while readable, isn't really worth the bother.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Posted: 2005-02-02 00:13 — Why no comments?

Hmm. The 'ugly people do exploring' concept stays around, it seems; in _Radiant_, he gives a hint about the 'real' reasons for it. It remains fairly unbelievable, in my view. I don't remember your views on spoilers, so I won't go into it more right now, though.

Posted by Brian Palmer at 2005-02-10 06:22

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04