Review by: KEN KORCZAK
For the 347,098,789th time in science fiction, an intrepid crew of brilliant scientists/astronauts crash land on a distant planet, and now must struggle to survive in an exotic environment populated by multiple species of aliens, some hostile, some not so hostile, and others that just fill out the flora and fauna of an alien world.
No, there is little cutting-edge invention in this latest offering by rising SF star MICHAEL SIEMSEN. It’s all tried-and-true formula stuff with the same themes that have been explored time and again since the creation of the genre.
Even one of the most intriguing plot elements – the way which an alien species achieved a fast track to superior intelligence – has been done before. The very same situation was brilliantly employed by Jack Vance in his 1973 novel, The Asutra. (I won’t tell you any more about this because I don’t want to issue a spoiler alert.)
My point is, like most new works of science fiction today, EXIGENCY stays safely ensconced within the broad parameters of science fiction solidified over the past century, and especially during the “Golden Age” of science fiction.
But you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with formula fiction as long as we have a writer who is up to the task of making it all seem fresh and stimulating again.
Think of it like blues music. It’s all based on just one fundamental riff: “dah-de, dah-de, dah-dah.” The challenge then is to take that basic form and innovate within it to keep making it seem new, reborn and freshly alive. Hundreds of artists have done it. “The Blues” never go out of style.
I’m happy to say that Exigency not only makes what’s old in science fiction exciting, vibrant and new – but it’s also thrilling and fun.
I found this novel to be engaging and enjoyable from first page to last. The reason why it works is:
• Well-developed characters that we instantly care about. The primary character Minnie (Minerva) is complex. She is at once brilliant, warm and likable, but just as often, cold, self-absorbed and exasperating. She is courageous, tough and talented beyond belief – but also struggles with a debilitating Achilles heel. So she has everything you want in a SF heroine, and maybe some things you don’t want – which, in turn makes for top-notch fiction.
• Almost from the beginning Siemsen expertly builds relationships between his characters (without ever letting the pace drag). This provides an emotional cohesion that is necessary to sustain our interest in the characters as they face their various challenges to survive on an alien world.
• A fully-realized, vividly imagined world that has a depth which not always apparent to the reader up-front, but which looms offstage in a way we can feel intuitively, yet without belaboring us literally.
• The writing is tight – there is very little in the way of exposition, which is the downfall of so many lesser science fiction writers.
• Aliens that are sufficiently alien, yet not so bizarre and exotic as to be entirely un-relatable. This is yet another tried-and-true element of science fiction which, although nothing new, is necessary to sustain the relationship with the reader.
• Plot – well, okay, there really isn’t much of a plot. It can be summed up as: “Stranded space travelers struggling to survive a harsh, alien environment. Will they make it?” But – yes, I’m going to say it – you don’t always need a strong plot to make for an absorbing, exciting read. (To hell with all of those literary snobs who would tell you different). After all, science fiction has always been the “literature of ideas” which separates it from the requirements of mainstream fiction.
But wait a minute, didn’t I already say there were precious few new “ideas” in this novel. Yes, I did, but it’s still a thumping read – and that means Michael Siemsen just has “that undefinable something” that enables him to write a terrific, captivating novel.
It reminds me of the great science fiction editor John Campbell, the famously imperious and despotic leader of Astounding Science Fiction, and the time in the late 1930s when he read a story submitted by A.E. Van Vogt.
“… the story proved to have a very strange effect on the editor. As he was reading this novelet, he recognized that he was enjoying it thoroughly. But when Campbell attempted to analyze the story intellectually, he just couldn’t see why it should be so effective.”
Panshin later explains why Van Vogt’s works can invoke such a magical effect on many readers (but completely turn off others) – and all I will say here is that the reason Siemsen’s novel is so enjoyable (and perhaps not so much for others) is due to a similar (similar but not exactly the same) effect.
But I’m not going to go into that further here – this review is already way too long.
In the final analysis – because of what science fiction is today, where it has come from and where it is going – what we truly need to make for a thoroughly enjoyable read is an author who has that certain “Van-Vogt-Like-Effect” that makes us want to keep turning the pages, and wishing that a 400-plus tome such as this was even a 100 pages longer.
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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