The year 2709 sounds a long ways away. But in Scott Cleveland’s science fiction thriller, space colonization and interplanetary crime syndicates don’t seem so alien when they’re populated by the highly realistic characters of Pale Boundaries.
Although the first couple chapters and their in-depth explanations of the social hierarchy and political landscape of planet Nivia struck me as a bit expository, the pace picked up considerably when the story turned from introductory stage-setting to a more character-driven plot.
Pale Boundaries’s hero (maybe antihero’s a better word) Terson Reilly arrives on Nivia a rough man from a rough planet—Nivia proves nothing like the dangerous bush of Algran Asta, where Reilly risked life and limb as a smuggler (four men die in the prologue, for goodness’s sake). But while Algran Asta shaped his character and gave him heightened self-preservation instincts—he’s the consummate survivor—this foreign world he’s been exiled to turns all that upside down. Poaching, after all, ranks somewhere between incest and murder on this hyper-environmentally-conscious planet.
Reilly as the rugged individualist dropped down into a disapproving society strikes an interesting note in the cultural climate of 2010 America. Pale Boundaries is by no means a political manifesto (even if the law enforcement/environmental law enforcement officers on Nivia are called the EPEA), but there’s an interesting premise here: what happens when “civilization” comes head to head with basic human nature? One of the best examples is the environment-protecting policy that drives not only Reilly but his probation officer Captain Bragg completely crazy: mandatory contraception, pregnancy-by-application, and strict population control.
The colonists of Nivia has made a prize of the most basic biological drive and began fighting for their children’s lives before they’ve even been conceived. Terson knew, without a doubt, that somewhere in the room was a person willing to destroy a friendship, betray a spouse, and perhaps even plot murder if they believed it could get them a child.
It’s Reilly’s realism confronted by the “naïve realism” of Nivia—best represented by another strong, fleshed-out character: Terson’s wife Virene.
Though they meet at Captain Bragg’s office (Virene’s not quite squeaky clean herself), the pretty dark-haired barmaid affecting the posture of a rebel (favorite pastime: taking up four spaces in a parking lot for her sports car), Virene’s a Nivia girl at heart—just as Reilly chafes under the strictures of this highly-ordered society, Virene blushes furiously when Reilly jokingly calls her “my horny little poacher.” Virene can’t quite adapt to her husband’s criminal tendencies, however attractive she finds the bad boy archetype.
“Their world was certain, stable and uncomplicated,” Reilly thinks, “A condition that ran completely counter to the environment of rugged self-reliance that produced Terson’s pessimistic realism.”
It’s kind of a commentary on the values of a complacent, comfortable American culture today versus that heroic image of the frontiersman who tamed the West. When Reilly comments on the “environmentally zealotry of youth,” I can’t help picturing the Go Green! posters plastered around my University’s residence halls every move-in day.
But let’s get back to the heart of Pale Boundaries.
Cleveland crafts a number more believable characters with their own engaging storylines. There’s Halsor Tennison, legacy boss of a powerful criminal organization on Nivia’s Beta Continent—a rougher place than Nirene’s tame Saint Anatone. Hal’s a sharp, enterprising thirty-something whose “only regret was not accomplishing as much as his predecessors.” For him, that means crime, counterfeiting, and general villainy.
Pale Boundaries, you might have gathered, isn’t just a ride to the future, but to the future’s underworld—the rebels, criminals, and disenfranchised. Surprisingly, they’re all sympathetic. (My favorite so far? Cormack MacLeod, the Scottish space hobo whose scenes are a guaranteed laugh out loud, every time).
Hal might plot the overthrow of a rival or destroy scientific research labs via arson, but he’s a good foil for Reilly: Halsor Tennison isn’t the most patient man in the Nivia Prime sector, but he’s not about to go on a shooting spree in a fit of rage (for the record, Reilly’s rage is pretty damn justified at the part I’m thinking of). With the uber-rational—not to mention beautiful—Lieutenant Dayuki by his side, Hal’s going to pursue his self-interest just as determinedly as Reilly, but with a lot more subtle scheming and a lot less visits to a probation officer. His cool encounters with Dayuki are parsecs away from the passionate Reilly and Virene, but the characterization of the Beta continent criminals is no less realistic. In fact, Dayuki might be the most fleshed-out character of them all.
Early descriptions of Nivian culture were a little heavy, true, but the complex relationship of the Family and their until-now submissive Minzoku allies. The honor-obsessed world of Dayuki is revealed through dialogue and plot, not blocks of explanation—and it makes the Beta Continent chapters some of my absolute favorites. The Minzoku have a history, a language, and a distinct way of life that Cleveland reveals slowly and subtlely. But once again, it’s believable because it’s not too foreign. A Japanese-founded colony on a new world that preserves continuity from the Pacific islands of ancient Earth is a ton more believable than the my-name-is-a-number futures of so many science fiction books.
So here I am at the halfway point, enjoying the characterization and sensing a tension build as the unrelated story threads of Reilly and Virene, Hal and Dayuki, even Cormack and a fellow baffle-rider (kind of like a train-hopping hobo… in space) slash snotty rich kid named Philip Sorenson begin to weave together.
But best of all is the fact that even as the determinism of an author’s pen draws them together, nothing feels contrived. The cultures are realistic, and the characters are real–even in 2709.
Just goes to show–the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Review part 2 on the way. Just as soon as I figure out why the hell Hal’s crazy ex-girlfriend Tamara just order a hit on… never mind. On to chapter 12!