January 08, 2015
(+++) WITH A ZAP, A BANG AND A BOOM
The Jupiter Pirates, Book One: Hunt for the Hydra. By Jason Fry. Harper. $6.99.
The Jupiter Pirates, Book Two: Curse of the Iris. By Jason Fry. Harper. $16.99.
Famed Italian director, producer and designer Franco Zeffirelli once described opera as “a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts.” That is a pleasantly elegant evaluation, but when “opera” (of a sort) takes place out among other planets, matters are considerably less, well, lofty. This is the genre of space opera – more accurately, a subgenre of science fiction; more accurately still, a subgenre of fantasy. If science fiction is a form of speculation about things that might someday be, fantasy is about things that never could be, and the tropes of space opera fall squarely into the latter category, violating known scientific principles frequently and with aplomb in the service of old-fashioned good-vs.-evil stories that just happen to take place in outer space. There is some excellent space opera out there, both in books and in other media – the first three Star Wars movies are a fine example – but most space opera, with its well-defined roles and one-dimensional characters zipping here and zapping there, is much less distinguished.
Space opera can, however, work rather well for adventure-hungry preteens, and it is they at whom Jason Fry’s sequence, The Jupiter Pirates, is aimed. Strangely, the series title is at odds with the series concept, since the central characters make clear repeatedly that they are not pirates but privateers, operating under a “letter of marque” in service to the government of the Jovian Union, which is in a kind of Cold War standoff with the government based on Earth. True, there were Jupiter pirates once, and – as is usual in space opera – there are some remnants of the old days and old ways around, notably including Huff Hashoone, cyborg patriarch of the family whose adventures Fry is chronicling in books whose first entry is now available in paperback and whose second carries things considerably farther in several ways.
Space-opera characters tend to have vaguely space-sounding names, so in addition to the pirate-sounding Huff (who actually says things such as “avast” and “arr”), Fry gives us protagonist Tycho Hashoone, Huff’s grandson; Tycho’s twin sister, Yana; their older brother, Carlo (not very space-y, that name); their mother, Diocletia, captain of the good spaceship Shadow Comet; their father, Mavry; the usual devoted below-decks warrant officer, Mr. Grigsby (who gets lines such as, “Guns are hot”); and the equally usual, imperturbable shipboard central computer, Vesuvia. Hunt for the Hydra throws these characters and some others into a far-flung (of course far-flung) series of close calls that involve trying to keep the family privateer business going while evading the clutches both of Earth-based ships and of slimy Earth-based “diplomats” (who may or may not be legitimate) and Earth-based political schemers who pull the “diplomats’” strings. Tycho and Yana are 12 during this adventure, and Carlo is 16; and the one unusual element of the series involves the siblings’ cooperative-but-competitive lives, because they must work together as crew to support the ship but are also in competition to determine which of them will eventually become the next captain of the Shadow Comet.
The first book ends in a way that shows the weaknesses of space opera in general and Fry’s series in particular. The Hashoones have a confrontation with a former Huff Hashoone pirate colleague who is also now largely an agglomeration of machine parts and who bears the unusually silly name of Thoadbone Mox. He is thoroughly evil, scheming and backstabbing and not above betraying his fellow pirates (or anyone else) and killing without conscience. So after the Hashoones defeat and corner him, Huff lets him go in tribute to the fact that the two of them are real pirates, not some sort of half-baked “privateer.” This sort of thing does happen in space opera – and in much of the earthbound fiction from which it grew, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island – but the problem here is that Huff’s decision leads directly, in Curse of the Iris, to the deaths of a number of Shadow Comet crew members. And there is no sign that Huff, Diocletia or anyone else even makes the connection, much less cares about it: for all the “we’re in this together” pronouncements the Hashoones make to the crew, most crew members (Mr. Grigsby excepted) are no more than disposable parts. Curse of the Iris is a better book than Hunt for the Hydra, the tricky ins and outs of a far-flung (again, of course far-flung) search for a treasure that may or may not exist dredging up a secrets of family secrets that allow Fry to start fleshing out the three young Hashoones’ character while showing that the Hashoone family line may not be quite so heroic and untainted as it seemed to be in the first book. Tycho becomes more-central in the second novel than he was in the first, being forced to keep a big secret from his parents and siblings and also showing compassionate instincts beyond anything exhibited by Yana or Carlo – a clear plus for him in the potential-captain race, although Fry may twist things so that Tycho decides his destiny lies outside direct inheritance of the family’s business line. One thing about space opera is that, in the absence of scientific strictures, it can go pretty much anywhere an author wishes, and The Jupiter Pirates is showing signs of being able to go quite some distance (the second book already has the Jovian Union itself starting to fracture, as people based near Saturn start to assert their independence). Fry paces the books well and writes in a clear, easy-to-read style that should interest fans of the far-flung for a number of books to come, even though there is nothing genre-breaking (or subgenre-breaking) here..