Reviews logo


Last Updated, Aug 2010


Edward Willett

    by Edward Willett

    Daw 2008

    Marseguroconcerns the conflict between a lost colony of humans genetically modified for their ocean world, and an Earth ruled by a theocracy intent upon purifying the human race by eliminating all such "distortions" of the "sacred human genome". Never content with simplistic depictions of good guys verses bad, Willett examines the ethical dilemmas inherent in total war from the viewpoint of four different characters, two of whom are forced to reevaluate their initial assumptions about who is the real enemy.

    Following the triumph of Lost in Translation, Willett's first mass market paperback, I was expecting great things from Marseguro. Willett only partially delivers. Although ultimately satisfying, Marseguro suffers from two fundamental flaws: the novel starts about 5 chapters before the story does; and the initial chapters include an unacceptable percentage of "expository lump".

    The two problems are related: Willett has made the common mistake of trying to include all of the details from his backstory directly within the narrative. Thus, after a promising opening, the action grinds to a halt while various characters spend the next 60 pages finding excuses to think about the history of their world in order to fill in the reader. This makes for a stilted narrative as characters reflect on or argue about aspects of their history or world that in reality they would take totally for granted.

Take this line for example: "As Emily had seen from outside — and as she knew anyway — the habitat was a sphere, the upper half full of air, the lower half full of water." Even the author has to acknowledge that our heroine already knew (and therefore would not be noting) the structure of the habitat. When was the last time you looked at a friend's house and thought to yourself, "The house was roughly square, with a roof, a front door and a backdoor"? We do not think that way because we are programmed to notice the unusual, not the routine. To be convincing, SF characters have to be equally blasˇ about their own universe, no matter how different from that of the readers'. Important as it is that the author has worked through all these details in his own mind (to understand the motivations and probable actions of his characters, and to keep everything in the universe logically consistent), it is both unnecessary and disruptive to insert this material directly into the story. Instead of telling the reader that the habitat is half air-filled, half water-filled, he should be showing us by simply having characters move from the air portion to the water portion; and if there is no occasion where they do this, then we probably did not need to know this detail about habitat structure in the first place.

Fortunately, the problem clears up after the first eight chapters or so, and the pacing gets back on track. I liked how, as the protagonists meet and overcome each new challenge, it simply ups the ante as they realize what the enemy will now likely try in response. As the stakes continually rise, the protagonists have to constantly up their game to overcome yet greater obstacles and confront yet more profound ethical issues. Indeed, it is this larger ethical element that I especially appreciate about Willett's writing. As in Lost in Translation the characters have to confront their prejudices, overcome their justifiable hatreds, examine their loyalties and — even more clearly in this book — Willett seems to suggest that triumph ultimately belongs to the characters who able to experience the most growth. The winners are those who are able to place others over self, whereas the losers are undone by their core selfishness In Willett's universe, karma counts.

In the end, Willett delivers the edge-of-your-seat, action-packed adventure novel I had been anticipating. But I worry that some readers may not make it through those first few flawed chapters to get to the payoff.

Which raises an important question: Where were the editors at DAW? Authors are understandably often too close to their own manuscripts to be able to recognize its flaws; but how is it that the editor responsible for this manuscript failed to identify to Willett the expository lumps in the initial chapters? Willett is clearly a strong enough writer to manage the required rewrites, once someone had pointed out where he needed to cut 50 to 80 pages from the front of the manuscript; but that, apparently, did not happen.

Despite a slow start, Marseguro is well worth the trouble, especially as it is clearly the first book in a series. Ultimately, I enjoyed Marseguro and look forward to other books in this series: Now that Willett has gotten telling the backstory out of his system, we can anticipate the rest of the series being pure adrenaline rush.

Reprinted from NeoOpsis Magazine #13

It has subsequently been suggested to me that I may have been jumping to conclusions when I complained about the editors at DAW not insisting on the removal of the initial expository lump; that the problem might have been, on the contrary, their having insisted on the inclusion of more explanation and background than provided in the original draft. This now seems equally plausible to me, as there has been a general trend towards 'dumbing down' in SF since the glory days of writers such as Cordwainer Smith, who explained nothing.