This week’s offering for Down the Stacks is a good example of a “potboiler,” a piece of work good enough to get published and earn the author some money, but not groundbreaking or experimental. The author is Mike Resnick, and the book in question is The Fortress in Orion.
The Fortress in Orion is science-fiction, and the editorial blurbs and back-cover synopsis would lead you to believe it’s a Space Opera - high adventure across multiple planets involving fun characters, faster-than-light travel, space battles, and at least some aliens or near-humans. While Fortress does touch most of those points, the end product comes across to me as more of a con caper - IN SPACE! - and not a very interesting one at that. The book takes place during a period where the human-led space Democracy is at war with another interstellar empire called the Transkei Coalition, led by a race called the Kabori. The war’s been going on for a couple decades, and the Democracy has decided to take covert steps to end things in their favor. They assign one Colonel Nathan Pretorius, famed for successfully completing several near-impossible missions (even though he usually ends up in the hospital afterwards), to put together a team to kidnap the Kabori’s top general and replace him with a clone that’s been trained to undermine the Coalition and leak information to the Democracy.
Pretorious’s crack team consists of cookie-cutter caper people, updated for space. There’s Felix Ortega, a cyborg who handles the necessary violence, Pandora the impossibly expert hacker, contortionist and thief Sally “Snake” Kowalski, Circe the empath, brought along to test if the clone can fool the right people, and Proto the alien infiltration “expert” who can alter anybody’s perception of what he looks like but doesn’t actually shape-shift. Although they all demonstrate enough personality to tell them apart, the characters are all pretty much what you’d expect a person in their role to be like.
The Fortress in Orion is just shy of 290 pages, and most of it is wasted. After the team is assembled, they just hop from planet to planet while Pretorius keeps fairly closed-lip about the full plan, claiming the importance of improvising when things go wrong. Things do go wrong once in a while, but the when the solution is either “kill the guys that spotted us,” “get a new ship,” or “make use of easily-hacked robots” the tension quickly drains away to nothing. There’s never much doubt that the mission is going to succeed, and I found myself wishing dearly for things to go catastrophic at the last second just for the sake of squeezing more emotion out of the pages. The main problem is that the reader is dropped into the plot and universe rather suddenly and the author doesn’t spend enough time helping us get to know the characters. We get a little bit of backstory, but barely any character interaction that isn’t discussing the mission or Pretorius’s reputation and authority. The various worlds we see are mere pit stops to refuel or throw off pursuit by obtaining new transportation. They have no life, no culture to speak of, or anything to make one stand out from the rest.
Mike Resnick has apparently written a lot of books based in the same universe as The Fortress in Orion. Some of them might actually be worth reading. I don’t know, but I can say that The Fortress in Orion is definitely not one of the good reads.