The brass called it a by-the-book mission. Lt. Nicole Shea was too green to know that, in space, there’s no such thing…
Since the last review was a book by a comics industry legend, I figured I might as well make a thing out of it and do a book by a different comics industry legend. I had forgotten that I had this one, so it was a lucky break that I found it before picking a different book.
Claremont’s claim to fame is that he wrote for Marvel Comics, specifically on Uncanny X-Men from 1975 to 1991. He’s co-responsible for a large number of characters that have since become staples, folks like Rogue, Gambit, and Shadowcat. His full list is a long one, and when I read it I find myself reflexively trying to put it to the tune of the Pokérap.
He also coined Wolverine’s catchphrase (“I’m the best at what I do…”) and, with John Byrne, wrote the pivotal “Dark Phoenix” and “Days of Future Past” storylines. He also worked for Image, Dark Horse, and DC on some things I’m not super familiar with.
Apart from being kind of a big deal, Claremont is also an incredibly good guy.
So here I am with FirstFlight, his first novel. I didn’t expect it to be very good. The cover just reeks of 80s badassery, which is fine because what else would you expect from Luis Royo? The back is better than the front and probably should have served as the front cover since it reflects the plot a lot better. There were no futuristic fighter planes in this book.
On the back, though, we’ve got plot elements! There’s a spaceship, there’s a rock shooting at it, and there’s a martial arts exhibition between our heroine and a guy who looks a lot like an adult film actor from the time period.
There’s also the fact that I’ve read two other famous comics writers on this blog and neither of them have impressed me from that angle. Gerry Conway is responsible for Balzan and whatever this was, while we visited Gardner Fox again just last week. I had started to wonder if maybe the ability to write comics and the ability to write novels might be two skills that don’t translate well to one another.
Of course, I know that’s not the case, at least not today. Saladin Ahmed (Black Bolt w/ C. Ward, Exiles w/ Javier Rodriguez), Nnedi Okorafor (X-Men: Wakanda Forever w/ Ray-Anthony Height), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther w/ Brian Stelfreeze) have been rocking it in the comics lately, despite starting their careers as print writers. Ryan North started in webcomics and went on to write Squirrel Girl with Erica Henderson (the best comic ever), yet also managed to give us the incredible chooseable-path adventures To Be or Not to Be and Romeo and/or Juliet.
There are, no doubt, a ton more examples.
And here we have Claremont and his first novel. How was it? I hear you champing at the bit for this one.
To sum it all up quickly, it was fine. It had a lot going for it and only a few things going against it. It didn’t grab me, but it didn’t let me down. It was better than mediocre. It was competent. Let’s break it down.
Claremont is often lauded for his strong female characters. This book is no exception. Nicole Shea is a lieutenant in the USAF, but she’s currently working for NASA. She’s an astronaut. She’s also a badass.
The book opens with one of those things I don’t like. It’s not an unforgivable sin, but it’s one of those tropes that are a bit overdone. Maybe it was less overdone in 1987. I would not mind being corrected. Anyway, here’s the trope in fake example form:
“OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE” screamed Steve, the freedok.
Steve was right. The ship exploded. All hands were lost.
He looked up to see the blinking SIMULATION OVER on the main screen. He was not happy.
There are plenty of reasons why that kind of cold open works. It shows how our hero acts under pressure and what we might expect of them in the future. It gives the hero a starting point from which to grow and develop in terms of skill and character. It gets the reader excited right as the book kicks off.
It’s also just…a bit cliché, and that initial excitement turns to “Oh…right. That didn’t count.”
Anyway, Nicole opens up the book by failing her training mission spectacularly. It boils down to the fact that she took off her helmet just before the disaster struck. She was bored and had a screw the rules mentality. It didn’t pay off.
This elementary failure causes Nicole to be scrubbed from the astronaut training program…until a very high-ranking officer and hero takes a shine to her and overrules that decision.
So yeah, the setup to this book is based on some standard tropes, and I was, by this point, preparing myself to be bored with the book for the rest of its 250 pages or so. But then Claremont threw some fantastic worldbuilding at me and I was impressed.
The book takes place at an unspecified date, but it’s one that’s very near the present. One bit of narration mentions that it’s only been three generations since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and at another point we have a character mention Bob Dylan and how he “lived to see it.” Next Sunday, A.D., in other words.
But here’s the thing: Humans have discovered FTL. It was an overnight thing, a chance discovery, and it changed everything. We don’t get many details on how it works, which is fine, but we do know that the inner workings are “deceptively simple” or something like that. We’re now exploring neighboring star systems.
And here’s another thing: The Baumier Drive, as it’s called, is not a precision instrument. It’s only good for very long distances. As a result, moving around intrasystem is still a slog. That can be remedied a bit by charting the system in detail, and that’s what Nicole’s first real mission is. A milk run to Pluto and back, laying down some beacons. Nicole is given command of the Wanderer for just that purpose.
She has a diverse and well-developed crew. They interact well, and all have fleshed-out backstories and personalities that work. Her buddy Paolo, whom we met in the beginning disaster, is there, along with a Russian dude, a Japanese lady, an Israeli fella, and a Marshal named Ben Ciari, whose badassery and philosophy teaches us a lot about the world of the book.
Ciari’s job is basically space cop, and he takes it seriously. He has no romantic notions about space travel, and he doesn’t hesitate to disabuse Nicole of her own beliefs in them. He trains the crew in self-defense techniques, but he’s quickly established as not being some dumb space brute. He’s also a philosopher, a lawyer, and a medic. Space travel, he explains, requires a person to wear many hats. It’s an extremely competitive environment. On the plus side, though, any amount of excitement is alongside some long stretches of boredom. The good spacers use that time to learn new skills. An eighteen-month flight out to Pluto, for instance, is a good time to earn another degree in something.
Nicole and Ciari end up banging a few times, and most of the interpersonal drama comes from the two of them. Ciari scares Nicole a little bit, but she’s also intensely attracted to him. He’s attracted to her in response, but his no-nonsense realism causes him to make it clear that this is only a temporary thing. The realities of spaceflight will see to that. After the mission, they will go their separate ways. Not by choice, but because that’s how the system works.
It turns out that this mission is goes anything but smoothly. After a while (about midway through the book), our crew finds itself in the asteroid belt. They intercept a distress call and move to investigate, although it throws their entire flight plan out the window. The spaceflight mechanics in this book are fairly hard science. Our heroes have to worry about the conservation of ΔV, for instance.
Investigating this distress call leads to our first real hazards of the book, and those hazards lead to even bigger hazards. It turns out that there are pirates flying around the belt, and their equipment and methods are surprisingly advanced. When another American ship shows up, presumably to help, it turns out to have been captured by pirates. The pirates also have a base made out of a hollowed-out asteroid and guns. A lot of things go very wrong, very quickly. Nicole’s ship is disabled, and three of her crew sacrifice themselves to save everybody else. One of the dead is her friend Paolo. Nicole is devastated. Her first command has resulted in the death of a dear friend, along with two other crew members, and there’s a solid chance that she and the rest of the crew will be lost too.
The book takes an interesting turn when Hana, the Japanese civilian crew member whose name looks a lot too much like “Haha” in the font this publisher chose, discovers that there’s a ship inbound. The Wanderer is disabled, so at first everyone assumes this is a rescue from Earth. Observations reveal, however, that this isn’t an Earth ship at all.
The crew of the Wanderer is able to scrap together enough thrust to intercept the ship and board it, whereupon they discover that the ship isn’t empty. It’s inhabited by some cat-looking aliens who at first seem upset that people have boarded their ship, but aren’t hostile.
The communications problem is alleviated when the aliens choose a crew member to genetically modify. They choose Ben Ciari, Nicole’s occasional lover, and mutate him into something a bit more like themselves. He serves as a bridge between the two races, and everything starts to look friendly and good. The procedure is reversable, he explains, and he tells us a lot about the aliens.
The space pirates show up again. We learn that the leader of the space pirates is a General Daniel Morgan, formerly of the US military. A decorated war hero, Morgan was ousted unceremoniously after saving a bunch of lives. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor, but all the effort and stress involved left him medically unfit for duty. Now he’s working to kill the people who kicked him out of the military, which is a pretty good clue as to why he got discharged in the first place.
Nicole and crew work together with the cat people, called the Halyan’t’a, to defeat the pirates, and it all works out in the end, although it’s sufficiently dramariffic to have kept me reading closely. Really, I enjoyed it, but there’s not much to summarize.
Nicole and the remainder of her crew return to civilization and are all proclaimed heroes. Ciari gets his cat-person-genes fixed and becomes an ambassador to the Halyan’t’a on board a ship called, get this, the Enterprise.
Seriously? You’re gonna name a starship the Enterprise? It’d be one thing if he’d had a character mention that it was named after a prominent fictional ship, but no, nobody even blinks.
Nicole has at least two more adventures after this one, and I look forward to finding them.
Apart from the great worldbuilding, I have to give Claremont a lot of credit for making some character choices that were ahead of their time. The crew of the ship is multinational and ethnically diverse, and they’re also sexually diverse in ways that surprised me. It’s nothing super progressive to our modern sensibilities—the Russian guy is a gay man and Hana, the Japanese woman, is a bisexual—but what impressed me was how matter-of-fact all the other characters were about it. There was no “What?!?! You’re a lesbian!?!” moment. The closest we get was a woman character joking about what a shame it is that the Russian guy is gay, since he is also incredibly handsome.
One near misstep is when we’re introduced to the gay fella and Nicole’s thoughts turn to the AIDS epidemic in a way that comes a little too close to calling it the gay disease. I’m gonna pin this down to the fact that the book is from 1987, not from any kind of prejudice on the part of the author. The fact that AIDS was mentioned at all in a book from ’87 is impressive enough, and seeing as how Claremont has done work for AIDS charities since then, I figure that this is a mistake he corrected. And that’s assuming I just didn’t read too much into it.
Probably the silliest aspect of this book was its insistence on using CamelCase. It’s even in the title, for heaven’s sake, although I’ve seen it printed elsewhere as two words.
Is there a term for the header on a page in a book that tells us the title of the book you’re reading? Whatever it is, this book is clearly named FirstFlight.
The book also gives us StarShips, DropShafts, OutSystem assignments, and many more. It’s very futuristic.
Nicole is a good strong-but-flawed woman character, although the book sometimes tilted a little hard on toward the “flawed” side. It’s a hard needle to thread, and Nicole had this tendency to just zone out during dialogue that grated on me a little bit. Her constant second-guessing herself made more sense, seeing as how this was her first mission and it’s gone terribly wrong.
It was refreshing how comfortable with her sexuality Nicole was, while not being some mega-hot space vixen. While there are beautiful people in this book, Nicole isn’t one of them. She describes herself in one scene as something like “too many bones in not enough skin.” She’s very fit; she’s neither busty nor “earthy” or anything like that. “Boyish” is the best way I can think to describe it, but there’s probably a better word.
Still, she’s got a sexual appetite and she knows how to use it.
Perhaps most interesting in that sense is that she has a fairly explicit sex scene with Ciari on page 127. It doesn’t mention any body parts, but there’s a lot of use of the word thrusting. Anyway, what’s notable is that this single page of sex was so full of typos. The rest of the book had a few, but not really enough to mention. The typo density on this one page increased by so much, though, that I have to imagine something was up. My guess is that the copy editor got a little embarrassed about it and just refused to read the page.
All-in-all, I’d say this was a competent book that deserves some attention. It was also very clearly a first novel. Sometimes it relied a little to heavily on cliché and the dialogue could get a little scrambled and hard to follow. I don’t say that to condemn the book, I just mean that the follow-up novels, along with Claremont’s other non-graphic works, are probably that much more competent for it. The books strengths were more in the realms of worldbuilding, character moments, and emotional details, and that’s all good. I expect that some of the rough edges will get worked out with more experience, and I look forward to finding out.