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The Artemis Files: #1: Elysium

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue.

The Artemis Files: #1: Elysium. Bradley Warnes.
Original publication: 2012
Current availability: print (mmpb) and ebook

Traveller to the rescue! In his book, Warnes uses Traveller terms of art to deal with the problem of ‘info-dump’ (exposition which has the unwanted effect of stopping a story dead in its tracks) when describing far future gadgets. Characters are armed with gauss pistols and laser rifles. They fly grav cars to high ports where they board System Defence Boats and far traders which are powered by manoeuvre drives. For a reader not familiar with Traveller, the names of the items are sufficiently descriptive of their use. Better still, if the reader has played Traveller, he knows exactly what the item is. Warnes has not adopted Traveller terminology wholesale; starships ‘transition’ rather than ‘jump’ and (in this book at least – there are two more on the way) there are no air-rafts or exotic races. The use of some Traveller terms and a space opera genre are pretty much the only areas that The Artemis Files and Traveller have in common.

Warnes’ books are not fiction set in a Traveller universe. There is no central Imperium-like power. In ‘the Core’ (which one assumes are star systems centred about Earth) various cultural extensions of ‘Old Earth’: British, French, Indian, Yankee and Deep South Americans battle against each other for power and influence. Beyond the core, in the ‘Hinterlands’ are thousands of independent colonies beyond the reach of the main political powers. It is in these Hinterlands that our Brittanic hero, Bren Montclare, merchant, rogue and contract mercenary plies the space-lanes in an ex-military starship, Diana (a princess of ships!), re-configured as a Free Trader and tricked out with a super-advanced onboard computer, courtesy of the Brittanic Empire, in return for which he is to deal with threats to Brittanic sovereignty as one of many ships comprising the eponymous ‘Artemis’ project. This is serious—so don’t for a moment compare Bren Montclare to Captain Henderson of HMS Camden Lock in the TV comedy series Hypderdive. Bren Montclare is not out in the Hinterlands to persuade Aliens to move their starship manufacturing bases to an industrial estate in Milton Keynes because the tea tastes nicer there, but to perform feats of derring-do and roll natural double sixes when the chips are down.

The story opens in media res, with our hero about to lose his family jewels. Just as everything seems lost, we flash back to his arrival at Elysium, a Hinterland world which makes its living by supplying every dissolute pleasure a depraved mind can conceive of, and it is on the surface of Elysium that most of the novel unfolds. The story is a simple tale of cross and double cross with a reasonably predictable plot, but that’s OK.

It’s OK because Elysium is a first novel from an author writing space opera and you expect (nay, demand) reasonably predictable plots in space opera. This is unapologetic pulp fiction with all the gender and race stereotyping that pulp fiction brings with it. It is the sort of book you read once and leave on the train, or in the case of the e-edition (a snip at US$4/UKú2.50), a dark corner of your hard drive. If you are after Charlie Stross-esque future projections of human existence or Richard Morgan’s superbly rounded characters and gritty yet polished prose, you are not going to find them here. There are typos, clumsy and inconsistent uses of language, and repetition, but thankfully these are not sufficiently serious to derail the story (they add extra pulp!).

To succeed, pulp fiction must above all else tell a good story at a cracking pace, and Warnes manages this with a couple of tiny, and probably unavoidable, info-dump lapses. After a skeptical start (the first chapter does not do the rest of the book justice), I was hooked and I wanted to know how the story would end. I consider myself an ‘average’ SF reader so I think most SF readers will be hooked, too. That said, I have to ask whether it really is necessary to describe in detail the hair of every character in the story (Yes, hair. George R.R. Martin does this too – and look where it got him, so there must be some advantage to it that escapes me).

There are also, in keeping with the pulp-fiction style, a couple of sex scenes which, are capably written. Initially I had thought that as a hard-bitten Mercenary, Bren Montclare was proving to be a bit of a prude in his approach to the wanton sex that Elysium offered, reflecting reservations on the author’s part channeled through his protagonist. I was relieved that once Bren got stuck into his first sex scene his reticence vanished and Bren, together with Warnes’ writing, lost their inhibitions for the remainder of the book. Getting a sex scene wrong can really kill a novel; intended arousal becomes amusement and even mockery—it’s the author’s equivalent of having a girlfriend titter at one’s manhood. Even the greats end up winning ‘bad literary sex’ awards, as Robert Heinlein did in ‘The Number of the Beast—’ for this description by a female character of a kiss: “Our teeth grated and my nipples went spung!”. I’m happy to say that Warnes did not in his sex scenes have any ‘spung!’ moments, although the sexual suggestions in the first chapter were to my mind clumsy and appeared to be juvenile and gratuitous without having the advantage of reaching that point of the story at its proper time. This was, in part, why I found the first chapter disappointing.

It hardly needs to be said this is not (thank God) a book which reads like a home brew Traveller scenario cast into written fiction. That said, referees might find Elysium, den of vice that it is, good reference material for their own scenarios. Warnes has some cool gadgets up his sleeve which can be dropped into Traveller games. I particularly liked the ‘mute cube’ which allows people to converse without being overheard, aurally or electronically. Cool invention.

The teaser chapter of the second book takes the story on a new arc altogether – Space Pirates! I’ll be waiting to see what the future has in store for Bren Montclare and Diana. As long as Warnes keeps his stories gripping, pacey and pulpy with a Traveller flavour, I’ll be reading them—even if I have to be told about the hairstyle of everyone that I meet.