In suitable fashion, Brown’s space opera BINARY SYSTEM opens with grand theatre as we watch the destruction of the terraforming star ship Pride of Amsterdam just before transition through a wormhole. During the ship’s final moments, we are introduced to Doctor Cordelia ‘Delia’ Kemp and her wily implanted AI device, IMP. As Delia makes her escape, her lifeboat enters the wormhole and she is catapulted to an uncharted part of the galaxy where she has the unenviable position of being the first and only human alive. Kemp crash-lands on a planet – Valinda – with an extreme, meteorological system that consists of a nine-year winter of sub-zero temperatures and two years of blistering, hot summer. Lucky for Delia, she’s marooned on the cusp of the warmer season. But no sooner is she on the planet she is captured by the Skelts, a race of mantis-esque creatures with a bad attitude. Whilst interned, Delia befriends Mahn, a member of the simian-esque, endogenous Fahran who have been enslaved by their off-world mantis upstarts. With Mahn’s help, Delia escapes and so begins a cat-and-mouse romp as fugitives and villains roam across Valinda’s surreal landscapes, meeting various inhabitants en route to a rendezvous with potential survivors from The Pride of Amsterdam.
The science of BINERY SYSTEM is more Harry Harrison than Asimov, but what we end up with is a narrative that rattles by, and writing that is smooth and assured enough to sweep the reader along through Brown’s visions of life on the other side of the galaxy. Characters are deep enough for us to understand their motivations, and the plot coherent and intriguing.
Where the author excels is the action set-pieces, whether that be the destruction of star ships in the vacuum of space or Delia’s knuckle-ride escapes on a distant planet, there is vibrancy to the writing that shows a palpable love for pulp fiction, whether that be intentional or not.
For this reviewer, IMP becomes an irony in a book that has the concept of paradox as a central conceit as this character creates a literary enigma all of its own. IMP has calculating charm, a vehicle for whimsical exposition that is an inspired move on Brown’s part. However, there is the potential frustration that IMP may taint the reader’s desire to ‘discover’ events from the perspective of Delia. As such, on occasion, her interpretations are sort of hijacked by IMP and his clinical insights of events as they unfold. This stifles the sense of mystery whenever we are introduced to new species as IMP tells us exactly what they are within a few minutes of meeting them. The same can be said for Kemp and how she comes to terms with her dilemmas. IMP is always there to provide insights and assessments almost absolving her of any requirement to think, let alone feel her way through this brave new world.
Nevertheless, BINARY SYSTEM is an enjoyable yarn with plenty of high adventure reminiscent of science fantasy of yesteryear. Avid fans of a pulp approach to the genre are likely to lap this up, savouring each and every chapter in a couple of sittings.