Hello, all! I have returned from my hiatus—and now that I’ve wrapped up my hectic school term, I ought to have ample time to blog during the long, hot summer. Let’s kick things off again with another book review!
You may remember my post on the novel Mission One, by Samuel Best. I deemed it a very entertaining if flawed sci-fi adventure across the Solar System; the prose was only serviceable, and the science was iffy, but Best had a clear artistic vision as well as some interesting ideas and characters—not to mention that it’s always good to see Titan show up in sci-fi. While the ending was bizarre, I gave it a pass and assumed that the many unanswered questions would be answered in the sequel. I have now read that sequel—Deep Black1, published December 2019—and I’m ready to report back with my answers to the pressing questions: did Samuel Best follow up from a strong first installment? Has he improved his writing style, and taken interesting new directions with the craft? How well does he channel the spirit of 2001 and Interstellar?
Deep Black follows hot on the heels of Mission One. Jeff Dolan is on Earth, having been mysteriously returned by the alien toruses at the end of the last book—they healed his wounds and left him to wash up on the Florida beach. Not long after the start of this installment he is hired to join a follow-up mission to Titan, aboard the government-owned Explorer II. This mission is shrouded in secrecy; meanwhile, a new private startup, Deep Black, is preparing its own spacecraft, in a race to make first contact with the advanced species that is certainly out there.
The second plot thread follows Dolan’s (now ex-)girlfriend Kate Bishop, formerly the Diamond Aerospace flight controller for Explorer I. In Deep Black, she’s hired by her former boss, billionaire Noah Bell, to investigate a torus that has mysteriously appeared underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. Bell’s research project comes under pressure from the same government authorities that sent Dolan back to Titan—all while the toruses on Earth and out in space present ever-stranger puzzles…
Samuel Best’s writing style has not improved since the first book. It remains fairly polished, with hardly any typos or grammatical errors to be seen, but it’s also dry. Descriptions are generally quite pedestrian, with little of the sense of wonder that a space exploration novel ought to have. For example: “The vessel was battered, resting with its nose slightly in the air against a large boulder of ice, but it was still in one piece. One of the landing sleds had snapped off, and the remaining sled rested at a crooked angle. Several gleaming, dented scrapes marred the pitch-black exterior”(Best 258). I mean… it’s OK? I’m certainly not asking for an endless barrage of polysyllabic details, à la H.P. Lovecraft, but humanity’s first venture to such a fascinating world as Titan deserves a bit more fanfare. Minimalistic prose only works if the descriptions are still memorable or artfully crafted in some way2, which these aren’t.
The dialogue ranges from good to cringeworthy; it depends on what’s going on—forced exposition or more natural contexts—and generally gets worse throughout the novel. Most of the characters lack much in the way of personality, and are interchangeable. The plot starts off promising, with intriguing threads on Earth and at Titan, but the latter devolves into repetitive wanderings across a wasteland strewn with inexplicable objects, and by the 75% mark it’s a bit of a mess. So in craft terms alone, Samuel Best doesn’t do a terrific job with this novel. I suspect he rushed it, particularly towards the end.
And the aliens are a big disappointment. <SPOILER> After setting up a big mystery with the end of the last book, Best answers few of the questions he raised. We get only a vague idea of their origins and methods of communicating. But the most perplexing and patently silly aspects of their behavior go unexplained. Why do they litter the surface and atmosphere of Titan with countless floating, tumbling black objects, ranging from fridge- to skyscraper-sized, seemingly without consistent shapes or discernible functions? Why are their worker drones clones (or otherwise duplicates) of astronauts from the first book, hovering wordlessly above the ground but still wearing their orange “Constellation space suits”? It was hard to take that image at all seriously. And the book ends with the culmination of the aliens’ plan—their toruses function to build a portal to Earth, where they birth a gigantic… creature, of some sort. Admittedly, it was a cool scene, but I was left scratching my head.<SPOILER>
What about the scientific accuracy? For a book that markets itself as hard science fiction, that is going to be a key selling point. There were more than a few oddities:
- Viewed from Titan, Saturn is described as a point of light, with the rings as barely discernible lines to either side. In reality, Titan isn’t anywhere near that far away.
- Everybody acts completely shocked when it is revealed that the Explorer II and the Deep Black ship both secretly (for some reason) carry landers. Judging by Dolan’s reaction, you’d think he was being asked to land on the surface of the Sun. Never mind that we’ve already sent a spacecraft down to Titan’s surface, and it didn’t send back grainy videos of its horrific destruction.
- Best never once mentions Titan’s light surface gravity (less than the Moon’s), and in fact gives the impression that it’s heavier than Earth’s. He does not seem to have done much research on one of the Solar System’s most unique worlds. There’s scarcely any mention of methane, for instance, even though they spend half the book there. He also describes clear ice when Titan is muddy as all hell and anything would quickly get coated in some sort of muck.
- Not necessarily scientific, but Noah Bell’s floating laboratory, studying the Gulf of Mexico torus, employs a grand total of four people (including him, not counting the lawyer). You can hardly run a sit-down restaurant with four people, how the hell are you supposed to manage a multi-million-dollar research facility equipped with a helipad, supercomputer, and submarine dock?
- The entire operation investigating the aliens is led by a single colonel, named Brighton. It’s unclear what branch he’s in, but he seems to command a large task force of US Navy ships, with <SPOILER> fire authority against the aliens <SPOILER>.
There’s more, but that’s a good sampler. One of Deep Black‘s serious problems is a clear shortage of research or engagement with the space travel elements, Solar System locations, and high-concept first contact ideas. It’s not anywhere near the hard-SF tour de force that Stephen Baxter’s Titan3 was.
What did I like? Probably more than I’ve hinted, particularly in the novel’s strong first act. The characters sometimes have pretty good banter. Samuel Best is great at cliffhangers—most chapters end on exciting, high-tension notes. Noah Bell’s ocean platform is an excellent setpiece and the underwater scenes are better than the ones on Titan. The billionaire and the high-ranking military officer aren’t automatically evil, for once. And at the end, when (some) details about the aliens are revealed, the book presents a couple of intriguing ideas.
So there’s definitely talent here. Heck, the first book left a good impression on me, and would have been a solid set-up to a more polished sequel. I think the biggest problems with Deep Black are that Samuel Best A) rushed it, B) cut corners on research, and C) didn’t clearly articulate the Big Idea behind the aliens. A better-thought-out book might have surpassed Mission One; as it stands, though, I walked away fairly disappointed.
I will now present my rating. It may seem harsh, but I’ve had a pattern of inflating some of my ratings—the lowest I’ve given out was 4/10 for The Killing Star, and that was a terrible book which should probably have gotten a 3. Meanwhile most of my other reviews are stuck at 7/10. So if the best works are to stand out, I must show no mercy. Accordingly….
Rating: 4/10. A fair but disappointing offering, as far as indie sci-fi goes.
- The full title is Deep Black: A Near Earth Second Contact Colonization Odyssey. Good grief. You’re not supposed to just cram words into your book’s title like they’re hashtags on Twitter. I see this pattern a lot on Amazon: “[Title]: A [Descriptor] [Descriptor] [Descriptor] [Type of Work].” I think the idea is that people want to specify their book’s niche right up front, or catch onto a trending category? But if you stick words together like Best does you just get the equivalent of Mad Libs.
- See: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which duels with Robert Harris’ Fatherland for the title of my second-favorite book.
- Admittedly, Titan got pretty silly at points (to be covered in a later review). But even at its worst, it was an all-out, no-holds-barred festival of insanity—unlike the disappointingly mundane prose that makes up the bulk of Deep Black.