If you’re looking for deep, philosophical science fiction that weighs the problems of humanity in an icy, uncaring universe, then perhaps Robert Kroese’s Starship Grifters isn’t the book for you.
Or maybe it is.
Here, I’ll explain. Rex Nihilo, the hero of Starship Grifters, is a gambling, drinking, arrogant space captain who has gotten himself into trouble, and it’s not the first time. In this episode, Rex finds himself in ownership of a planet, which doesn’t seem so bad until it comes to light that this world comes with a hefty debt attached. Hefty doesn’t really even begin to cover it, in fact. He owes more money than one person could ever hope to settle.
This is where Starship Grifters takes off, with Rex and his assistant, the robot Sasha (more on her to come) soon fleeing debt-collecting robots, breaking into and out of a prison planet, alternately pursuing and being pursued by an evil empire called the Galactic Malarchey, forging an uneasy alliance with a rebel princess, and dodging pesky space missionaries. Starship Grifters has a bit of everything. It boasts quick, inventive humor, and there’s a healthy dose of broad farce as well–think Mel Brooks meets Douglas Adams meets Mystery Science Theater 3000.
And while Rex may be the guy on the marquee, Sasha is the real hero here. Rex is funny, in a Zapp Brannigan/Zaphod Beeblebrox way: He’s lazy, he drinks too much, he’s a blowhard goofball, he makes rash decisions, and in the best comic tradition, he has no clue about any of these shortcomings. But Sasha is the responsible adult, saving the bacon at every turn.
It’s sort of like P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, wherein Bertie Wooster was the less intelligent of the two, and it was constantly down to Jeeves to rescue the day with his superior intellect and knowledge of human nature. Here, though, imagine it’s Jeeves telling the story, and, of course, also imagine he’s a robot, and pretend the story takes place in space.
The story is also brimming with scifi references–Star Wars, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, and others–some satirical and others just plain silly. And silly is okay, as long as there’s something more substantial to cling to in times of trouble.
Don’t panic. (Did I really just go there? Yes, I did.) There are a lot of jokes, some of them even borderline groaners (still good, mind you), but there’s also plenty of substance. Everything is not always as it seems, either, and author Robert Kroese has a few surprises up his airtight spacesuit sleeve. Think you have everything figured out? Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t. It’s rarely quite that simple, and that’s a good thing. In fact, a decent amount of the humor in Starship Grifters comes from more serious (or at least more weighty) matters, such as the futility and inevitability of human conflict and the inefficiencies, contradictions, and vulnerabilities inherent to massive bureaucracies.
In another author’s hands, these issues might be worth crying over. Here, we have no choice but to laugh. Out loud, occasionally.
Trust me–it happened to me.
Rating: Four out of Five Stars