ometimes it's hard. When a bright young or youngish author like James Alan Gardner does a book like Expendable, sometimes it's hard to be calm. Hard to be dispassionate.
Hard to say, simply and calmly and dispassionately: this is not a very good book.
Much easier to say: go away. Go away James Alan Gardner. You're far too intelligent to play at being stupid. You write far too well; you fail, therefore, to bore readers into giving up before the full lassitude of your tale finally, on the last page, after several hours of Classic, Growing Incredulity on the part of those who tried to believe in the cutting-edge space opera you've given them, glues shut all hope tight shut, tight.
To repeat: James Alan Gardner has a knack with words. He knows how they follow one another. He can do a turn--page 121, for instance--when a transparent-as-glass autochthon on what seems to be a killer planet suddenly addresses the protagonist Explorer in demotic, bad-tempered English--is neat. And the description of the infrared distinction between humans and androids, on page 131, is neat, too: androids, being artifacts, have IR readings dominated by hot spots (like council estates), while humans, being organic, have subtler internal heat gradients (like a cottage industry before Taylorism). And there are a few more neat bits. But not many.
The story: it is the future. Earth humans have discovered (in the back story) that they are being monitored by the League of Peoples, which seems to forbid only one thing: the killing of other sentients. Those Earth humans who are unable to tolerate the suzerainty of the League are left on Earth; those who are able to submit to being civilized are given a New (as we discovered two hundred pages in) Earth.
To explore, and to die
The protagonist, who tells her own tale, is a scion of the later moiety. She is an Explorer, a member of a corps elite whose task it is, non-murderously, to explore new planets, and (quite likely) to die while doing so. Because Explorers are likely to die (we learn), their ranks are comprised solely of human beings with visible deformities. Our heroine, Festina Ramos, has a really big birthmark on her face--though there is some hint it has been surgically implanted by the authorities who always need good stock to swell the ranks of the Explorers (sorry about that "to swell the ranks" cliche: it's the sort of writing you get into when you try to describe stories like this).
Explorers are visibly deformed because only if they are visibly deformed, and therefore kind of despised and made mock of by other folk, can human society, or at any rate the Space Navy which transports them around, tolerate their deaths. Thus deposes James Alan Gardner.
It is perhaps the dumbest sociobiological explanation of any human activity I have ever encountered in a novel. Putting questions of Political Correctness aside, can you imagine the life expectancy of a government which deliberately and publicly assigns the handicapped to jobs they are unlikely to survive and which refuses these heroes any prosthetic surgery, and which allows them to be treated by their inferiors as despicably failed managers of spoiled identity when they are on duty? I cannot.
And I refuse to try, Mr. Gardner.
A suicide planet
Whatever. Festina is suddenly assigned to accompany an Admiral to a suicide planet. She (and everybody else) seems to know that the ruling technocracy gets rid of "Admirals" who are going senile by dumping them on this planet. Simply dozens of suicide expeditions have already been mounted. Every Explorer knows that to be assigned one of these expeditions is to be, in effect, murdered.
Hey, thinks any reader who's been assuming from page one that birthmarked Festina is embarked on a rite of passage and will be an Admiral herself by the end of the book. Hey, about time. But those readers (I was one) have been jumping the gun. Festina becomes an Admiral, of course, after the story's done; but nothing in the story actually warrants our engagement in this long-expected denouement.
The real story
The stupidity of the initial premise is not explained (I, for one, thought it was going to be) by the revelation that everything up to page xxx has been a Virtual Reality test, and that once Festina clicks onto the fact that she's been set up as part of an Examination Procedure, we can get on to the real, and moderately less fatuous, story, in which (once again I was fooled by Mr. Gardner) for instance, maybe, we might meet a few members of the League, or confront them, or something, anything. Anything, really, but that which does happen.
Festina's old Explorer lover is on Malequin, too. Hey, Small Universe. And he's bitter at being trapped there. So twisted is he that he contemplates wholesale genocide (of the indigenous glass people, whom one might call the Vial Folk) in order to launch himself offplanet. He gets killed for his troubles.
More details on request.
So. No counterplot, no irony, no escape. What you see is what you get. Cartoon birthmark, cartoon sociobiology, cartoon guys and gals (and vials), cartoon transparency throughout, like an empty bottle. Like an empty mind. Like an empty book.
John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. He is the author of the Hugo Award winning Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, as well as one of the co-founders of the British SF publication Interzone. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Omni, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and other places too numerous to list. His latest book, Look at the Evidence, was nominated for the 1997 Hugo Award.