Solaris, 400 pages
Review by Lucy Powell
An amalgamation of two short novellas, Binary and System, Eric Brown’s Binary System is a novel that quite literally starts with a bang. After the spaceship Andromeda catastrophically explodes going through a routine wormhole jump, the accident is enough to fling the book’s protagonist Cordelia Kemp, sat in her escape pod, tens of thousands of light years through space and time. The problem? Humanity thus far in this novel has only travelled a measly two-hundred. She is, for all intents and purposes, stranded. It is with this horrific yet beautifully realised crushing sense of realisation that Brown leads us into the novel. We accompany Kemp crash landing on a nearby planet (later named ‘Valinda’) after her life raft is shot down. This alien planet is where the rest of the novel takes place. She battles her way through hostile alien life, establishes First Contact, all the while trying to understand the mysteries of this new planet, survive, and accept the crushing reality that she might never be going home.
In part, the book is a neat addition to the sci-fi genre, and the concept of ‘lone survivor on an alien world’ is one that Brown explores well. The weird, wonderful, and often deadly creatures Kemp comes across make for a thrill ride as she is captured, escapes and is then hunted across the landscape, finding herself embroiled in a burgeoning civil war between the oppressed race (the Fahran) and their oppressors (the Skelt). The world building however is one that, whilst adhering to well-worn and dependable sci-fi tropes, could have done with more historical context. A twenty-third century pilot drawing upon twenty-first century pop culture references is too anachronistic to stomach.
Whilst the Imp (Kemp’s in-built computer implant, without whom her experience on this planet would have assuredly been very different) translates the strange languages, tests the water and air supply, and muddles its way through the stranger parts of what the planet has to offer, one is still left feeling as though there is not enough strangeness present. The alien planet is one which shares very human-like amenities and cultural experiences; ranging from beds, to money and trade routes, to the concept of organised religion (although without giving too much away this ‘religion’ has a later intriguing, if familiar conclusion).
The main ‘twist’ of the novel is by and large one you can spot a mile off, although as this is a book that doesn’t pride itself on being a mystery novel, that is perhaps not the point. Whilst the writing in some places is jarring, we are seeing this brand new world for the first time much as Kemp is experiencing it. If there are some sentences or concepts that don’t quite make sense, it is because she too is struggling to put the world and aliens she encounters into words. The descriptions Brown presents to us of strange worms that rise out of the ground to eat seed pods, in a similar vein to Frank Herbert’s Dune, and scenes where Kemp introduces the Fahran to the music of Arvö Part are almost ridiculous—but that is perhaps the beauty of it.
Brown’s Binary System is a colourful romp, and whilst the storyline is not particularly deep or taxing on the imagination, if you like exploratory space-faring science fiction then this is definitely a book to explore.