Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland

October 15, 2021 at 11:54 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 5 Comments
Take Back Plenty cover

Some time ago I was looking at some lists of underrated science fiction and came across Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty, a book I’d heard of once or twice but never read. It won the 1990 BSFA Award for Best Novel and the 1991 Clarke Award. This blog once had a number of British readers, including some involved in the BSFA, but since I personally couldn’t adapt when discussion largely moved to Twitter and in any case haven’t posted here in years, it’s probably safe to finally admit to this Internet equivalent of an empty room that I never really enjoyed much of the much-applauded “New British Space Opera”. I loved Iain Banks’ early work, it’s true, but even though I respected what authors like Alastair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod were doing and wanted to like them, they just didn’t click with me. The caveat there is I haven’t read their work in well over a decade, so who knows what I’d think now. Anyway, my choice for Iain M. Banks’ best novel, Use of Weapons, somehow lost to Take Back Plenty for both the BSFA and Clarke. Was justice done?

Alas, no. This book is objectively worse.

Just kidding. De gustibus non et cetera. And really, if you value prose style more than anything else when you read fiction, Take Back Plenty is an excellent book. I’m not going to go back and check but I bet sometimes in the past I’ve used “style” as a shorthand for “good writing”, but Take Back Plenty is a good example of how, although the latter is undoubtedly useful for the former, they aren’t the same. There weren’t any sentences that struck me as unusually good in this book. Take Back Plenty‘s writing is fine, but it achieves its considerable impact through quantity, not quality. Through description and word choice it relentlessly reinforces a given scene’s mood, creating a very memorable texture. In light of its success in this area, it’s not surprising it won an award like the Clarke that tends to go to very literary science fiction.

Okay, it’s still a little surprising, because the mood the book wants to conjure felt extremely reminiscent of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. If you were pitching this to Hollywood, you’d say, “It’s Neuromancer but in space!” (To which they’d say, “What’s a neuromancer?” because Neuromancer also depended heavily on prose style for impact, prose style that would be completely lost in any translation to the screen, and no one has been foolish enough to adapt it). I’m not one to get snippy about something being derivative, though, especially if we’re talking about being derivative of something good. I’m not sure what a set of Clarke judges would have thought about Neuromancer as old Arthur C. only created the award in 1987, but for what it’s worth it was nominated for the BSFA but lost to Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which is pretty good for what it is but so incredibly different from Neuromancer it’s hilarious they were nominated for the same award. For my part, I loved Neuromancer when I read it as a teenager and I think it’s held up pretty well. Computers have changed enormously since then, but the cyber parts of it never made much sense–Gibson didn’t know much about computers. The punk part of it, on the other hand, has aged well, maybe not in its aesthetics but at least in its emotional content.

If Colin Greenland knew much about space when he wrote Take Back Plenty, he didn’t bother to include it, so that’s another similarity. Sometimes the book feels deliberately anachronistic as its characters traverse Martian canals and encounter dangerous indigineous animals in jungles on Venus. But it doesn’t deeply commit to retro-futurism. The spaceships are controlled by AIs and space is teeming with a rigid hierarchy of aliens that seems likely influenced by David Brin’s Uplift books.

The story’s basic format is familiar. Down-on-her-luck spaceship owner-captain Tabitha Jute needs to take a job before her debts come due, so against her better judgment she agrees to carry Marco Metz and his dubious band of misfit musicians to their show on “Plenty”, a massive alien-built space station in Earth orbit. Things don’t go according to plan, however, resulting in Tabitha and her passengers getting chased across the solar system by the police, bounty hunters, and more.

This book really wants to be described as a “fun romp” and if you look around some reviewers have gone along, but…it’s really not very fun. Chaotic romp I’d allow. Disaffected romp? Antisocial romp? I’m willing to fully endorse the book’s rompiness, so I’m at least half on the same page with what it’s trying to do. The problem is that, as should be obvious from even my extremely stripped-down summary, Tabitha Jute is a gender-swapped (and race-swapped, since for what it’s worth she’s described as dark-skinned) Han Solo. That seems like it should be great! Who needs boring old Luke when you can make Han the main character? But a lovable rogue functions best as a supporting character who can be a purveyor of sarcastic commentary, a seemingly-disinterested party who’s won over by friendship or the rightness of the cause, not to mention being a love interest with an air of danger to be, again, won over and made safe by a heroine. With Tabitha as a theoretically lovable rogue, she can’t very well pick up “better” people, so instead Marco Metz and his band have to be even, uh, roguier. Han Solo’s charm also got mislaid somewhere; Tabitha is introverted and combative with everyone except her AI ship, so she spends most of the book repeatedly, and ineffectually, telling her passengers to shut up, to get out of the cockpit, to stop touching things, etc.

One factor humanizing Han Solo from his first introduction is his camaraderie with Chewbacca. Tabitha’s equivalent is the AI inhabiting her ship, the Alice Liddell. Like Chewbacca, the AI is loyal and friendly to the otherwise friendless rogue, and also like Chewbacca, the AI is thinly characterized, in this case as a gossipy but supportive friend and not much else. The novel has a slightly complex structure where there are periodic chapters that consist solely of Tabitha telling stories of her past to Alice. I didn’t find this as helpful for Tabitha’s character as Chewbacca, though. Even though Chewbacca is unfortunately treated more like a dog than a person by the Star Wars movies, he’s at least a living being with emotions and feelings. Alice, though, is a ship. Oh, eventually it turns out she can be removed, but basically she’s a ship. A ship that Tabitha owns. It’s both the only valuable thing she owns and something supremely valuable to her because it represents her independence. She has lots of very selfish reasons to value Alice and take care of her, so it never feels quite as wholesome a relationship as it really should be.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, while the nature of Han Solo’s financial problems are obscure and off-stage and so potentially not all his fault (at least until The Force Awakens, where stupid screenwriting formulas led JJ Abrams to think it was a good idea to intentionally portray Han as a pathetic figure), Take Back Plenty isn’t afraid to make it very clear that nearly all of Tabitha’s problems stem from her own behavior. She lives almost entirely in the moment and frequently makes her own situation worse through poor impulse control. Occasionally she feels bad about this, but not for long, and she never makes any effort to change. She’s constantly sleeping with men when it’s clearly a bad idea, taking jobs that are clearly bad ideas, and antagonizing authority figures, especially police, even though it just gets her in worse trouble. In small doses this approach to life can seem admirable, but after reading about dozens of bad decisions it gets wearying, especially when there aren’t any good decisions mixed in. If you’re going to be Han Solo, it’s best to be charming, but failing that you should at least be fairly competent. We never see Tabitha being good at anything.

Characters like Tabitha show up in a lot of “literary” books, so maybe there’s a constituency out there that likes this sort of thing. I don’t know anything about Greenland so this is the worst sort of speculation, but I sometimes wonder if these dysfunctional characters are a lot more relatable for twenty-something artists loitering in the peripheries of academia, indulging mildly self-destructive tendancies toward sex, alcohol, and drugs, “broke” but able to call on their parents in a pinch, products of privilege and destined to eventually get their act together and find an off-ramp from bohemian living back to the comfortable middle class. Who knows? Look, I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m a reliable employee and I usually pay my bills on time, so it’s hard to relate to these characters. And science fiction in particular is a genre that really appreciates competence, if only technical competence.

I don’t think Greenland or most literary science fiction readers are going to be impressed by the constant references to Star Wars, so let’s go back to the Neuromancer comparison instead. That book also has a down-on-their-luck main character joining a group of misfits and going through a strange series of vaguely criminal actions. But while Case’s compatriots are weird and untrustworthy, they (and he) are all very good at something, and in Molly he finds a friend and real ally. Further, although we don’t get nearly as much of an exploration of Case’s character and backstory as Take Back Plenty gives us for Tabitha, as with Han Solo, this has the benefit that whatever Case’s mistakes, it’s plausible that he opens the novel down on his luck for reasons not entirely his fault, especially since it’s a cyberpunk milieu where faceless corporations are controlling people’s lives. So although he’s not the most likeable character, Case is a talented hacker who ends up involved with other talented people in a criminal enterprise.

Besides its style, Take Back Plenty‘s main project is probably subtextual. Gender-swapping Han Solo doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but in 1990 it was a bold move, and making the main character dark-skinned was too terrifying to the publisher to accurately depict on the cover. Beyond this representation, there’s a strange feminist undertone to the book. I say strange because, well, I guess it’s a worthwhile feminist project to take idea of a male dysfunctional antihero and turn them into a heroine but still leave them just as unlikeable and dysfunctional? It also can’t be a coincidence that by the end of the story, all the annoying male characters are dead or humiliated, while the slightly less annoying female characters are better off than they were. That’s an interesting narrative choice, but there’s no real message, no real thesis that the female characters deserved to win. Was Tabitha more oppressed than Marco Metz? The book isn’t interested enough in Marco or any of the other male characters for us to find out.

There’s some political subtext here too. I’m not very familiar with left-anarchism, to be honest, but I think there’s a lot of that mixed in here. Tabitha resists authority figures of all sorts at nearly all times, no matter how insanely a bad idea it is for her to do so, and her only real motivation in life is to somehow retain her ability to tool around the solar system in her ’57 Chevy of a spaceship despite her inability to profitably operate her small business. She punches cops, ignores rules meant to keep people safe, and when she gets an unlikely opportunity to mess up the government of the solar system, she doesn’t think twice.

This is maybe the part of the book that has aged the worst. In 1990, I guess sticking it to the man like this felt like a hip, countercultural thing to do, but in 2021, it’s hard not to see Tabitha as a car dealer instead of rebel, the sort of small business owner who in a literal sense is very well off (very few people have their own starship like Tabitha!) but who resents “coastal elites”, taxes, and refuses to get vaccinated. And although the many alien species give the narrative a sort of diversity, it’s a little gross how each species gets only a single, race-wide archetype: there’s literally a race of cop-aliens, another that apparently does nothing except get in bar fights, etc. Apart from being generally bad practice, the species/job alignment means disliking police, the one part of all this that retains some lefty credibility, looks suspiciously like racism in this setting.

So this is a book I think a minority of people will really like, and if you’ve read this far hopefully you have some idea as to whether you’re one of those people. The “spacepunk” style is relatively unique and the setting is amusingly off-the-wall at times. Alas, I developed a huge dislike for every character not long after each was introduced, so it didn’t work for me. In this case the collective memory seems accurate to me: if you want to read something from this time period, I think the better-remembered science fiction would make for better choices.

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