REVIEW: Battlestar Suburbia – Chris McCrudden

Battlestar Suburbia

Author: Chris McCrudden (twitter)

UK Publisher: Farrago

Genre: Science Fiction, Comedy

In space, no one can hear you clean…

When Darren’s charge-cart gets knocked off the Earth-to-Mars highway and lost in space forever, he thinks his day can’t get any worse.

When Kelly sees Darren accidentally short-circuit a talking lamppost, and its camera captures her face as it expires, she thinks her day can’t get any worse.

When Pamasonic Teffal, a sentient breadmaker, is sent on a top-secret mission into the depths of the internet and betrayed by her boss, a power-crazed smartphone, she knows this is only the beginning of a day that isn’t going to get any better.

Join Darren, Kelly and Pam in an anarchic comic adventure that takes them from the shining skyscrapers of Singulopolis to the sewers of the Dolestar Discovery, and find out what happens when a person puts down their mop and bucket and says ‘No.’

I picked up this book because I do love a good genre farce. I thought this would be along the lines of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or even Galaxy Quest. Campy, silly fun, crammed full of puns and hijinks. I wasn’t expecting an emotional punch to the throat within the first couple of pages. In a world where robots rule, humans have been reduced to menial workers, keeping the place clean. But when we say robots, it’s not hugely advanced beings – it’s the gadgets and gizmos which have been getting increasingly more complex and digital as they have evolved, such as fridges and smartphones. At the point they realise they’re actually smarter than their users, they rebel and set themselves up as the establishment. No more menial work for them. Instead humans are banished to ‘dolestars’, council estate satellites which are overpopulated and full of humans who are ferried back and forth to Earth to do the cleaning, unless they can earn their living elsewhere.

Darren is our everyman, and the agonisingly relatable heartbreak he felt as his independence and livelihood is shot off into space thanks to a careless driver was unexpectedly close to the bone. Darren spends much of the book after that in a bit of a baffled daze as things escalate from upsetting to unbelievably high stakes within the space of a couple of hours. After attempting to sign on for quick cash (humans can’t have contracts shorter than 6 months, because they have to prove their worth and productivity), an attempt to get a fast payout by giving a robot a discreet hand job (i.e. cleaning dust out of its circuit boards) ends disastrously when he accidentally blows it up. From there suddenly Darren is thrown into high-stakes conspiracy and government corruption. He finds it a lot to deal with, and says so to great effect on numerous occasions. He goes from being slightly feckless and an overlooked disappointment by everyone he meets, to being the soul voice of reason in many situations. There’s one utterly delightful line, as he observes the Nth dramatic encounter for Kelly, his femme fatale saviour, where he wistfully wishes she was the type of person who could go through life on an even keel without constant emotional drama.

The book is full of puns, but despite the silly premise it’s actually a very grounded book. It doesn’t rely a lot on emotional reflection, but that means when those issues are touched on they come as a surprise and are more effective for the contrast with the rest of the narrative. What you get instead is a relatively fast-paced comedy-conspiracy-thriller of sorts, with a race against time and shady government officials. This works really well for providing the narrative with familiar plot points to hang spoofs on, and give the book a tight structure to fit with the compact timeline. Despite being over a couple of days, the book doesn’t feel rushed. The split narratives between Darren/Kelly, Pam, and Janice all combine to slow the pace down without making it feel ploddy. It’s done well – often swapping POV in this way can seem jarring, and feel like it knocks you out of the rhythm of the book for a bit as you re-settle into the new narrator. This doesn’t happen here, and each plot line links and moves with the others without feeling like you are having to step from one story into another.

There is an awful lot I love about this book. There’s something quite funny, and really very British, about having a thriller based around a lot of politicians in brothels, but also managing to ensure that there is not a single bit of sex involved. Paying robots go to these parlours where humans use them as though they were their source machines, taking selfies with cameras, exfoliating with face scrubbers. It’s like a BDSM set up for robots, but almost entirely free from arousal. The language around it makes it seem sordid, while all that is happening is mundane chores and things which we do every day. It’s always fun when euphemism and tone is used to make perfectly innocent things seem thoroughly debauched, and McCrudden has a lot of fun with it in this. There’s also a bit of very British humour in Darren’s unfortunate habit of disguising himself in women’s clothes. While it harks back to the panto dame, and perhaps could be seen as a little reductive in terms of “why is it funny when a man wear women’s clothes”, McCrudden actually takes this running joke and uses it as a way to explore Darren’s psyche – he becomes more confident when dressed as a nurse because it grants him perceived authority, but he also becomes aware of some of the daily issues faced by women in terms of harassment from men. There’s also an interesting contrast across the disguises he has. When dressed as a woman he is glamorous, and hidden in plain sight by drawing attention to himself; in his disguises as a man, he is invisible, choosing costumes which others will overlook. There’s definitely something to be read into this, particularly as Darren is the only male narrative character in the book, and one of only a handful of named male characters with significant plot roles. Instead, the story is carried by strong, distinctive women and Darren serves often as a foil to them.

One of my other favourite parts is the fact that the only four cyborgs in existence are four old ladies who got trapped under high-tech hairdryer hoods when they went in for a shampoo and set and the internet declared independence from other technology. The resulting technological and electrical backlash fused the four of them with their digital hoods, and now they ‘live’ in the back of a hidden hair salon, communicating through emojis displayed on the digital screens on the front of the hoods. It’s a delightful education in emoji, and also a fantastic contrast to traditional images of cyborgs in SFF as physical juggernauts.

The sequel, Battle Beyond the Dolestars, came out earlier this month, and I can’t wait to get cracking on it. This series clearly has a lot to offer, and I’m going to enjoy it all.

Briefly:

  • A delightful science fiction farce that manages to be grand in its ideals but also doesn’t overextend itself further than the orbit of Earth and current inventions, creating wonderful humour from absurd ideals, and grounding itself with understated observations in the midst of outrageous episodes.
  • A fantastic cast of strong-minded women characters, I also enjoyed how understated Darren was as a character. Everyone had something I could relate to – Kelly and Janice shared a stubbornness with me, while Darren’s patient exhaustion can be clearly empathised with, and Pam is the dream of an administrator pushed too far.
  • The hair salon which houses Janice’s base of operations is called Kurl Up And Dye, which has been my favourite hair salon name ever since I first saw one while driving around the Leeds ringroad. I’m delighted it has been immortalised in this book.

Rating: 4/5 – as per standard practice, I generally don’t give 5/5 to first episodes in a series, because I like to see how things play out, but I am utterly in love with this universe and am really looking forward to the next instalment.

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