The Salvage Crew (Book Review)
by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Science Fiction, 2020
3 / 5 Stars
I listened to this via audiobook on Audible.
I should have loved this. It has all the elements I generally love in a sci-fi novel: new planets, first contact, survivalism, alien creatures, regular people doing a regular job but in the far future, an interesting premise …
But I found it hard to be engaged. I think part of the issue was the narration. I love Nathan Fillion - he was why I decided to listen to this novel - but he mumbles a little bit. As such, I couldn’t listen to the novel at 1.5 speed, which is my preference. If people talk too slow for my (apparently hyper wired) brain, I can’t pay as much attention as I should.
The Salvage Crew is told from the perspective of a man-turned-A.I. He's been translated into the computer of a salvage operation, where he oversees the work of three humans as they build a base, explore the nearby area, and attempt to find the salvage they were set there to find. What they didn't expect were hostiles in the form of alien animals and a rival salvage crew.
I can’t blame it all on the narration. Wijeratne is obviously a smart guy; he draws from history, literature, other sci-fi works, some pop culture, and science to world-build, but sometimes it comes on too strong and becomes almost pedantic (perhaps this was simply how Nathan Fillion narrated it, though).
The poetry and the quotations were also somewhat annoying to listen to. I will admit, while I like poetry, if a poem is included in narration, I tend to skim it. I also wasn’t entirely convinced that the Charge of the Light Brigade, which he references often, applied here. I’ve always been a fan of that poem, but I read it as Tennyson’s honouring the soldiers' sacrifice in how they charged towards certain death without fear. That’s why it’s called Charge of the Light Brigade, not Fall of the Light Brigade. Comparing them to three useless salvagers doing a job for a company fell short for me in terms of a working allusion. Kameron Hurley's (double!) twist on the poem in The Light Brigade resonated more clearly with me.
The characters. I really loved how the Overseer could see and hear everything going on due to his drones and spiders, etc.; that part was believable and very well done. Yet, despite being in the first person, I didn’t feel I knew him that much. We only learn small tidbits about his life previous to becoming a machine, but he also never talks too much about the things he misses from being human. Physical contact, perhaps? If he’s got a full range of emotions, can he feel love? Given all the other focus on A.I. stuff, this question (not love specifically, but his transfer from human to A.I.) was something I wondered about the whole time.
The other characters fell woefully flat. It’s really frustrating because the plot itself is enjoyable and engaging. But why not have six characters rather than three (many hands make light work, right?) and give them more background. All we get is the cursory info-dump at the start, which hindered rather than helped. Rather than tell us all about Simon’s experiences in the Sim world right off the bat, why not just have him be the geeky geologist until he runs amok with the rifle? Then it would be a surprise that’s a mystery until he gives his backstory or O.C. figures it out? Same with Anna - the Overseer has doubts about her from the start, but other than a few sentences near the end, it doesn’t contribute to much in the story. Milo gets no development at all. There’s also no snarky banter, most arguments are told in passing, and the characters don’t grow or develop. I didn’t feel like I knew any of them, which made it hard to care.
And the ending just went on and on and on. As someone who knows a lot about this kind of concept, it was didactic in the extreme, and I kept checking how much time was left.
This novel is kind of like a well-put-together cake. It has all the elements a cake should have, but the flavour is lacking, and the icing is too thin. I didn’t dislike it, and I think the author is talented at world-building and complex concepts, but there was no story within the plot to make me excited.