REVIEW: Battle Beyond the Dolestars (Battlestar Suburbia #2) – Chris McCrudden

Battle Beyond the Dolestars

Author: Chris McCrudden (twitter)

UK Publisher: Farrago

Genre: Science Fiction, Comedy

See Also: Battlestar Suburbia

Time for the Machine Republic to Kurl Up and Dye

It’s a year since the Battlestar Suburbia broke free from Earth and the human rebellion is hiding out in the asteroid belt. Their leader, Admiral Janice, is assembling a fleet she hopes can topple robot rule – except on Wednesday afternoons when she can do you a half head of highlights for 30 quid.

Janice has given Darren, now the reluctant captain of the teenage starship Polari, a critical mission, to open up a path back to Earth by bombing the Martian Gap Services. But when it goes wrong and Darren and his crew are chased deep into the solar system, Janice has only one hope left, back on Earth.

Here, sentient breadmaker Pamasonic Teffal is resisting the human–machine war the best way she knows how: by running for office. Until a distress signal from Janice persuades her to get her turbo-charged alter ego Pam Van Damme out of mothballs, that is…

You’ll be pleased to hear that book two of the Battlestar Suburbia continues in exactly the same vein as book one, with kick-ass women, sympathetic characters, and puns up the wazoo. I honestly think that Chris McCrudden is some kind of pun-generating machine. They were everywhere, stuffed into crannies ready to leap out at you with no warning. My favourite was one where, after dressing for the part of “renegade spaceship captain” in knee high boots, tight trousers, and a dark waistcoat (sound familiar?), Darren ends up stranded in space and pondering his future alone. He’s never been entirely comfortable with his current costume, and was only wearing it because it seemed appropriate for the role, but on reflection of his current circumstances he isn’t, he decides, made for the “solo life”.

I have been thinking about that pun ever since I read it. I nearly messaged the publisher to express my delight. It was built up subtly over chapters, and then just dropped in the rhythm of narrative with no force whatsoever. I find myself wondering how many other puns which were threaded through like this I actually managed to miss. Probably more than I should admit to.

This instalment takes place over a similarly truncated time frame as the first book, but despite being split over more narratives it feels less frenetic because it’s essentially a siege plot, with the machines unleashing their (hurriedly-assembled) Ultimate Weapon against the Battlestar Suburbia. Darren ends up trapped with his nuclear-missile-turned-spaceship somewhere on Jupiter, Pam wrangles her multiple versions, Freda attempts to escape from virtual prison, and newly-introduced printer Fuji finds herself attempting to fly a spaceship which has the mental age of a toddler and only wants to watch cartoons. McCrudden somehow finds time within this to explore more fully some of the ideas he introduced frantically in the first book. Darren’s habit of wearing costumes is brought back, as he tries to find out who he really is and work out how it meshes with who he thinks he’s supposed to be which has quite a lovely resolution.

Equally, the technique Pam learns in book 1 where she splits herself between multiple machines becomes a thread here, but each split Pam begins to develop their own variant personality around the core Pam, and seeing these different shades of Pam try to work out how they rub along together and co-exist. It’s a great way of exploring the facets of Pam’s personality and all her neuroses and issues.

There’s always some slices of truth in humour, and this book opens a year after the end of Battlestar Suburbia, and life has continued. Machine culture has embraced filth as a response to the human cries for freedom, and the Machine government is busy riling the citizens up into febrile hatred to gain support for this war against humans. Pam tries to find human sympathists but is instead fighting an uphill battle against bombastic soundbites and populist sentiment. Fuji shows the other side of this, drafted into the front lines of the operation underneath battle-crazed Generals. It’s a clear parallel to much of the history of combat – leaders rushing troops out underprepared and with shoddy equipment, trying to push them over lines with the power of momentum rather than actual preparation and training.

Yeah, it’s a little near the knuckle, but McCrudden doesn’t linger too much on it, and instead uses it as catalyst for what comes next. He explores the nature of personhood, of right and wrong, and of leadership. What makes a strong leader, what makes a good leader? Where does your moral code stop and your duty to your nation begin? It’s also an interesting dynamic where for humans death is final, for machines it last as long as it takes to load your last backup into a new body. Machines wouldn’t even remember the trauma of their death. The risks are unequal between the sides, but so is the sanity, which is weighted in the other direction.

I’m not sure if this is the final book in a duology, or the second book in a series. I think there’s more to be explored in this world, but the ending to this book felt more final. It was a nice ending, and worked really well. I hope there is more, but if not I will be interested to see what else McCrudden has to offer.

Briefly:

  • Continues in the same vein as Battlestar Suburbia but explores more nuances as the plot gives room for more personal introspection. McCrudden is kind to his protagonists, and treats them gently even as they are embedded in the humour.
  • The puns in this are incredible, some more clearly broadcast than others, some slipped in with incredible nuance to surprise you. Every word and set up is carefully chosen, I get the impression that nothing here is an accident.
  • There’s something refreshing about the mix of this cast – two mothers, four old ladies, and a man exploring his identity openly and vulnerably. McCrudden doesn’t really give us any traditional action heroes, or even antiheroes. He gives us normal people, voices of sanity, but with flaws and confusions of their own.

Rating: 5/5 – something feels very kind in this series, at its heart, even where it deals with violence and oppression. McCrudden knows people, I think, and it comes across.

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