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Thin But Fun, 'Off Rock' Is An Old-Fashioned Space Caper

Science fiction has always been such a mutt genre. It's the place where you can do anything, tell any story that crosses your fevered mind. Want to do noir? Cool. A romance? No problem. A war story? Absolutely. Throw in some ray guns, little green men and some hand-wavey, black-box techno-whatever to stitch it all together, and you're good to go.

None of this is an insult. Some of the best pulp sci-fi was exactly this. You ever read Theodore Sturgeon's Killdozer!? It's about an alien intelligence that possesses a bulldozer which then goes on to kill a bunch of construction workers trying to build an airstrip in the Pacific during World War II. And it is awesome. But no one has ever mistaken it for great literature.

When Kieran Shea sat down to write his newest book, Off Rock, it's plain he wanted to do a heist story. A caper straight out of the hardboiled '50s school. And what do you need for a caper? A couple criminals, something worth stealing, a woman, a gun and a betrayal.

So Shea presents us with this: the galaxy, circa 2778, devoid of life save humans. There is interstellar travel (never explained). There are human habitations scattered all over the place (rarely discussed), a thriving mining sector picking the bones of planets and asteroids and many large corporations fighting over every kilogram of saleable minerals. Into this universe traipses Jimmy Vik, a hard-luck surface miner with two decades spent working for The Man. He's not straight, for sure, but he isn't really all that crooked either. He just wants to be left alone to do his job, drink his pay, tend his terrariums and build his model ships.

'Off Rock' is a fast read. Like one day at the beach fast, or one flight with no layovers. The story zips along with little in the way of complication.

Can you see where this is going already? Yeah, you're right. One day, while out trying to close out a mine on Kardashev 7-A, Jimmy finds an overlooked pocket of gold that he thinks is probably about 50 kilos worth. The company knows nothing about it. His supervisors know nothing about it. He's all alone out there in his spacesuit, and this whole mining site is about to be blown up and abandoned as the company pulls out. So what if he just, you know... takes it for himself?

The problem is, getting the gold out of the ground unnoticed won't be easy, especially with his by-the-book ex-girlfriend (recently promoted to management) breathing down his neck. Getting it off-rock — off of Kardashev and to somewhere safe? That's even harder. Stealing even an ounce would be an offense for which the company could have Jimmy executed, and for 50 kilos of it they'll do even worse. So Jimmy's gonna need some help. A partner. And the only guy on Kardashev capable of moving 50 kilos of gold unnoticed is the degenerate gambler, drunk and all-around scumbag Jock Roscoe who has some plans of his own for all that metal.

Off Rock is a fast read. Like one day at the beach fast, or one flight with no layovers. The story zips along with little in the way of complication. Or rather, little in the way of literary complication. While the plot itself is essentially based around stacking complication atop complication and double-cross upon double-cross, there's no trickery here. No gimmicks. There are plot twists, but none you can't see coming a mile off. No mysteries without tidy (generally explode-y) solutions.

... while there's some good fun to be had between the covers, it's essentially weightless — all surface, no depth.

Which, in a way, is as it should be. This is one of those books where all motion is dictated by catastrophe — where one simple action (the stealing of 50 kilos of gold) precipitates, at least partially, a whirlwind of consequence which keeps mounting and mounting until everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, at least twice. It is pure entropy in novel form.

But, ultimately, what Off Rock feels like is a good idea for a pulp short story held together by a couple of interesting characters, then stretched to cover the minimum number of pages necessary to call itself a novel. It's a romp, a down-and-dirty, blue-collar tale of crime and consequence, but it's thin. And while there's some good fun to be had between the covers, it's essentially weightless — all surface, no depth.

Which might be exactly what you're looking for. There was a time when nearly all sci-fi read like Off Rock — when everything was about Zack Spaceman, a rocketship and calamity. And even if the genre has matured over the decades, become more respectable and more complex, sometimes it's good to remember where we came from, to touch back on the classic dilemmas and take a ride with a guy, a girl, a gun and some ill-gotten gold while all around us, the world falls apart.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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