It’s been a fun exercise rereading a favourite sf novel each month this year, although there have been disappointments. But there have also been pleasant surprises – such as Colin Greenland‘s Take Back Plenty.
I remember the buzz when the novel was published back in 1990. It “reinvented” space opera. Arguably Iain M Banks had done that three years earlier with Consider Phlebas, but Take Back Plenty was different. Colin Greenland‘s novel was a reworking of – and homage to – pulp sf tropes. Mars was habitable and had canals. Venus was habitable and had jungles. There were aliens everywhere.
In brief, Take Back Plenty is the story of Tabitha Jute, captain and sole crew of the barge Alice Liddell. While on Mars, she inadvertently causes a near-riot, and is subsequently fined by the authorities. She doesn’t have the money to pay the fine. Fortunately, she meets up with Marco Metz, leader of the cabaret act Contraband, and he contracts her to take him and his band to Titan. First, they stop off at Plenty, an alien artefact orbiting Earth. It had been built by the alien Frasque, but they’d been booted out of the Solar System by the Capellans – highly advanced aliens who’d bootstrapped humanity into space, and now kept everyone sealed within the orbit of Pluto.
Of course, Contraband isn’t really a cabaret act and Tabitha is forced to flee Plenty with the members of the band. They crash-land on Venus, are rescued by pirates, and then delivered to the Capellans. And to say anymore would give away the novel’s resolution.
I’d forgotten how good the writing is in Take Back Plenty. Here’s part of the description of Venus:
“The coral reefs of Erebus rise in great jagged spires from the sticky sea. Etched, eroded ridges spiral and veer, running for ten, twenty kilometres through smoke-black water. Where they meet they throw up frozen, warty explosions of barbed knots and clusters of mineral teeth. On these serrated edges the medusas, globs of muscular mucus as wide as tabletops, hang stranded and expiring, thrown up by tempests that rend the glutinous, tideless waves. The cliffs of the coral are thickly stained with their ichor.”
Plot-wise, perhaps, Take Back Plenty is slightly less successful. The setting – the pulp-populated Solar System – is a great deal of fun. But poor Tabitha seems to spend much of the story being chased from A to B. She has very little control over the plot. The ending too reeks of old sf serials. The cavalry arrive, there’s a sudden reveal and subsequent explanation, and it’s all over. While all the clues have been set, it does feel a little too pat.
However, there is one nice post-modern touch to the novel. Take Back Plenty is clearly a narrated fiction. There are even authorial interventions. But the identity of the narrator is kept secret until the end of the novel – and makes perfect sense within the confines of the plot. It’s not hard to figure out, but it does add an extra dimension to the narrative.
As do the conversations between Tabitha and Alice, the Alice Liddell‘s AI persona. In these, Tabitha tells stories of her past – which serve to entertain, to explain her background, and to help map her character. It’s an effective technique.
Unfortunately, in retrospect Take Back Plenty seems a bit of a one-off. Yes, there were a further two books – Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty – forming a trilogy. Colin Greenland also “reinvented” the planetary romance with Harm’s Way in 2000. But during the 1990s, it seemed no one else mined pulp sf for tropes. Instead, we had Banks-style widescreen space opera, or Alastair Reynolds‘ hard sf space opera. No one leapt on Colin Greenland‘s bandwagon…
… until recently. In the last couple of years, there have been a few books by US authors which are based on and around old pulp sf tropes. A sort of return to the old sf action-adventure paradigm of the early Twentieth Century. Interestingly, while some have put a modern spin on this inasmuch as they provide a contemporary scientific rationale for their tropes, none have put a post-modern spin on it in the same fashion that Colin Greenland did. To my mind, that makes Take Back Plenty more interesting as it’s privileging story not setting. It’s probably also worth pointing out that Consider Phlebas is still in print, but Take Back Plenty is not. And given the recent interest in re-imagining pulp sf tropes, perhaps it’s time for a new edition. Or perhaps it should be included in the SF Masterworks series?
I have my copy, and I’ll be reading it again. Take Back Plenty is definitely a book that will remain a favourite.