The universe is full of bastards, Terson Reilly tells his probation officer. And in Scott Cleveland’s novel, we meet a lot of them: from the vigilante Reilly to the shady poacher Neil Sorenson to the Hal Tennison, head of the Nivian mafia, Pale Boundaries gives readers a cross-section of an alien world’s underworld.
The second half of the book brings to the fore a character who’s been, until now, perhaps the one reputable, law-abiding man in the novel: Maalan “by-the-book” Bragg (and that’s actually his nickname, albeit from probatee Reilly). When Bragg becomes a material witness in the murder of Reilly’s wife (oops, did I give that away?), his entire world comes crashing down. Nivia, remember, is the organized, ordered, regimented and squeaky-clean planet of environmental zealotry and strict population control. Shiny happy people, all. But Bragg quickly discovers that the world is not such a civilized place as he imagined–something Terson Reilly’s known his entire life. Culture is a veneer, and it’s kill-or-be-killed in the Algran Asta bush once more. Bragg has some trouble adjusting. Shoot, he gets ill at the thought of possibly killing a man.
Halsor Tennison has no such qualms. And before I say anything else, let’s get this straight: as much as I’m inclined to call him a badass (okay, fine, I already do), he’s definitely public enemy number one and Pale Boundaries‘s scariest bastard, period. Terson Reilly might break the law for the sake of survival, but it’s Hal’s way of life–and his is the friggin’ creepiest sociopathic demeanor on Nivia. Though Hal wins the reader to his side up to the dramatic climax build in the fourth quadrant of the book–convincing me at least that his Minzoku rival Den Tun must be the epitome of scheming evil–Hal’s pretty damn quick to use a needle beam. The best Hal Tennison, Murderer scene?
“I think that’s all I need,” Hal growled as he raised his arm and put a needle beam through the back of [censored for spoilers]’s head. The man’s skull vented its contents though his eye sockets, spraying chum across the surface of the pool. His body fell into the pool next to his son. Spasms shook his body as he sucked in water, lost buoyancy, and sank.
“You shouldn’t have done that!” Tamara gasped.
“The gaijin betrayed Hal-san,” Dayuki declared approvingly.
Right, Dayuki. The culture and history of the Minzoku unfolds elegantly through the course of the novel (about halfway through, we get an interesting explanation of the causes of humankind’s “Exodus” to the stars–something a blogger named after Frank Herbert’s diaspora is always interested it) and makes Dayuki a believable character in all her cold counsel and religious fanaticism. In sum, Dayuki’s a pretty impressive sociopath herself, which is great: no science fiction novel can succeed without a couple seriously creepy characters.
Clever criminal or cold-blooded killer (too much alliteration there?), loyal second to seriously disturbed consort… these are some of the lines that our heroes (and bastards) cross in Scott Cleveland’s Pale Boundaries. Beta Continent is one of the gray areas on the borderlands of Nivia’s strict black-and-white morality. But ambiguity is nowhere greater than in the person of our protagonist himself, Terson Reilly. He uses the titular terminology in his thoughts about the clash of cultures he represents on Nivia:
Guilt stabbed Terson under the ribs with such ferocity that he flinched. Ultimately no matter who did the deed or the degree that Virene willingly participated, her death was Terson’s responsibility. He was the one who led her beyond the pale of her society, made her the target of criminals… he who didn’t protect her when she needed him most.
And it’s not just Terson personally–it’s the entire set of survival assumptions he brings with him that pushes him over a cultural boundary:
Commonwealth law held that self-preservation was insufficient excuse to hazard another vessel or habitat and that doing so subjected the offender to the possibility of capital punishment. The concept of death through voluntary inaction went beyond the pale of human instinct, but it was pounded into the head of every ship’s crew until their ears bled.
I imagine the very thought made Terson Reilly’s ears threaten hemorrhage. This is, remember, the frontier man who was shot in the head at such a young age that his skull plates hadn’t yet fused.
I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say that the resolution doesn’t disappoint. But be aware: any book with a title like Pale Boundaries is bound to leave some ambiguity itself.