Toby Frost is obviously a science-fiction/comedy nerd. I know because I am as well. Which makes Space Captain Smith one of the more confusing works I've read in some time. It's not the story, nor Frost's frankly excellent storytelling ability, but that he so obviously inserts pop-culture references liberally into this novel that it makes the (knowledgeable) reader wonder if it's parody or a method of overcoming writer's block by attempting to parody familiar sources.
Undoubtedly the greatest influence on this work is Douglas Adams' immortal Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, which pits a lone earthman against an ever-expanding universe in which anything is possible. While lacking Adams' universal scope (Who could match it? Or want to?) Space Captain Smith exhibits many of the same characteristics - the ostensible hero's essential Britishness, the importance of tea and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" attitude exemplified by the island Kingdom. Add a handlebar moustache and bluster to Arthur Dent, and you have Isambard Smith.
Frost writes - at most times - extremely well, able to interest you with his ability to maintain a narrative. This skill, however, is thrown into sharp relief by occasional unwieldy sentences and editing errors: mis-spelling "mantelpiece", for example. His apparent literary hero Adams (mine, too) had the ability to write simply but also in a beautiful twisty-turny manner, where he was able to fluidly and languidly take the reader around what he wanted to say without actually writing it. It was, to coin a phrase, in an almost (but not quite) totally unique manner.
While he writes in an easily-understood, frank and smirk-inducing style, descriptions aren't Frost's strong point. The entire novel (305 pages) features a relatively small circle of characters and although you get to experience their thoughts, much of their physical characteristics (with the exception of the mysterious Rhianna Mitchell) aren't drawn well. It could represent Smith's British Raj-style thinking, but any aliens are remarkable only for their colourings and vague descriptions rather than actually being fleshed out well. Unfotunately this includes one major charater, Smith's best friend, the M'Lak (Morlock), Suruk.
Frost leans so heavily on his background knowledge of British SF comedy that if you know the genre, you can pick out where he's lifted certain lines from (in)famous sources. The author either doesn't realise (or care) that we've seen Blackadder's Christmas Carol, or fails to realise there are people like myself who possess a sad gift for remembering throwaway lines of TV. Within the first half-dozen pages he lifts "I give you this much Greeting" from Christmas Carol and makes sure to follow it up with many more deft thefts. It happens so often that one asks if this is still parody or just kind of cheating. I still don't know the answer.
Some of those parodies aren't well judged, either. The entire sequence satirising The Matrix doesn't work at all (Smith and his fellows meet characters in black longcoats, who always wear sunglasses and are named Neil, Trinny and Morris) and feels lie it was added because a ) it scanned well at the time or b) he needed an extra thirty-five pages. On the whole -and this is a statement rather than a criticism - Space Captain Smith reads like a first novel, which indeed it is.
Prosaic SF comedy is tough to do wihtout falling back on cliches. It's what made Hitchhikers' and Red Dwarf so special - neither was afraid to laugh at the situations the characters found themselves in, but both also didn't fall into cliche set pieces. The setting was a vehicle for comedy, rather than comedy thrust into the situation - kind of why so many American sitcoms are set around the home (and end up banal and boring - like Two and a Half Men, eeeeuuggghh), while British ones have a little more variety in location. The last number of "first attempts" I've read in the genre - this and Simon Haynes' Hal Spacejock: First Course - both feature bumbling space captains with preconceived notions of their own importance/greatness, somehow manage to get the girl, in beat-up freighters with a non-human best friend. And that's just the main character - several plot devices are very similar as well. There are heaps of cliches in SF and authors have made full use of them.
The difference is though that Haynes was attempting to be original while Frost set out to employ some and parody others. Space Captain Smith embraces bumbling heroes, beat-up spacecraft and bloodthirsty-but-friendly aliens, but attempts to parody other media sources rather than totally rely on creating a farce and failing.For this, Toby Frost should be congratulated for knowing just how many cliches to cling to.
That's not to say that Space Captain Smith isn't a good book. Parts are very enjoyable - the interplay between characters is both charming and witty and Frost is obviously someone who has a keen comic mind as there are throwaway jokes in nearly every paragraph (some of which work and bring a wry smirk, some of which fail horribly). He's also created some characters worthy of having novels written about them but unfortunately I'm unconvinced at this stage if Isambard Smith, a combination of Arthur Dent and General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth, is one of them.
Frost and his publishers Myrmidon obviously think Isambard Smith is worthy of sequels as there have been two subsequent novels published in the series which could be worth checking out. Rating is difficult: somewhere between golf balls and tennis balls, depending on one's sense of humour.
Image courtesy: http://blog.verulamwriterscircle.org.uk/?p=139