Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: 'The Last Deathship Off Antares' by William John Watkins

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Last Deathship Off Antares’ (204 pp.) was published by Questar / Popular Library in January 1989. The cover illustration is by Blas Callego.

When the Terran Stellar Incorporation decides that the Antareans, or ‘Anties’, are a threat to the profitability of the galaxy, a mighty space fleet is dispatched to the Antares Platform. Undergunned and underarmed, the fleet is promptly destroyed, and nearly half a million of its soldiers and spacemen taken captive by the Anties.

For the Anties, who adhere to a kind of alien version of the Japanese samurai code of bushido, surrender is a disgraceful act, and they decide to give their Terran captives a chance to redeem themselves. The Terrans are dispersed into a fleet of prison ships moored at the Platform.

Aboard each of these ‘death ships’, ten thousand men drift in low gravity and fight among themselves over access to the small number of feeding stations scattered around the interior of the ship. With each day, more men die from exhaustion, lack of food and water, or murdered by their erstwhile crewmates.

The unnamed first-person narrator is one of the men living day-to-day on board the deathship The Last, utterly consumed with the brutal struggle to gain access to a feeding station, or ‘niche’. Once entered, food and water are disbursed for no more than 10 minutes, while the occupant is safely sealed within the niche. Once the ten minutes are up, the doors unlock, and the desperate throngs clustered outside will attempt to pull the occupant out and take over the niche for themselves.

One day the narrator encounters a blind man named Driscoll, and a fight for a niche ensues. Despite his handicap Driscoll is a devastating master of hand-to-hand combat, and he easily evicts the narrator from his niche, only to ask him if he’s interested in joining The Cooperative.

The Cooperative, it turns out, is Driscoll’s organization. An organization with a seemingly impossible aim: unite the human psychopaths aboard The Last, and take over the ship from the Anties.

And then the other ships in the prison fleet.

And then overthrow the Anties in charge of the Antares Platform.

And then destroy the Antarean battle fleet.

And finally, return to Stellar Incorporation space, and deliver a vengeful reckoning to the Profiteers who ordered the disastrous assault on the Antarean Platform.

It sounds insane. But Driscoll has a plan. All combat aboard the prison ships is hand-to-hand, whether between humans, or humans Vs Anties, so ranged weapons – blasters, lasers, power rifles, phasers - make no appearance. 

Driscoll’s peculiar genius is to turn the Anties’ single-minded preoccupation about fighting and dying with honor, into their greatest weakness.

It also helps that Driscoll has a new religion for the crazed occupants of the deathships: the potent philosophy of The Gradient ….

‘The Last Deathship’ has the kind of hokey title that conjures up the pulp sf stories of the 30s and 40s. 

In actuality, it’s an offbeat, if not entirely successful, combination of space opera, and….. the UFC (?!).

The first 80 pages of the novel tend to drag, as author Watkins devotes over-much exposition to the aboard-ship ecology of the niches, and the the political and tribal features of the prisoner population.

As well, sub-plots devoted to the various intrigues among the factions vying for supremacy aboard The Last regularly crop up in the narrative, and after a while, tend to become tedious obstacles to the advent of Liberation, and the forward momentum of the storyline. 

However, the descriptions of the hand-to-hand battles among prisoners, and eventually, the aliens, are suitably violent, and as blood-spattered as an 'Ultimate Fighter' episode on the Spike channel. These martial arts contests help propel the narrative when the frequent, and rather dull, internal monologues of the narrator start to slow things down.

Despite its uneven pacing, I finished ‘The last Deathship’ thinking that it was a decent enough novel, with more coherency in its 200+ pages than the 500+ page military sf novels routinely published these days by Baen Books.

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