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Suborbital 7 cover

Suborbital 7 by John Shirley

(Titan, 2023)

Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts

Three scientists have been kidnapped by a shadowy terrorist organisation called Thieves in Law. Not only that, they have been kidnapped not for their ability to secure a sizeable ransom, but for their knowledge. Obviously, a rescue mission is required, and in a not at all over the top move, a crew from a suborbital vehicle, the titular Suborbital 7, is sent under the command of Lieutenant Art Burkett. Art is briefly portrayed as homely man, wondering if he can move away from the dangers of his job, his wife is considering her position as a faithful wife to a US ranger and never knowing if he’s going to be coming home after a mission. The back story really contributes little to the story, apart from an attempt to give at least one of the characters some sort of rounded personality, something that is notably lacking from pretty much all the others. However, this is not a novel concerned with character development, this is an all-out action thriller, and so the characters backstory is really little more than set dressing.

Once the rescue mission is underway, the action ramps up to a fever pitch of militaristic violence and action. It is complicated by several factors. In addition to getting the scientists out alive, there is the requirement to retrieve some of the terrorists alive, one of whom just happens to be the brother of one of the rescue team. It quickly becomes apparent that the reader shouldn’t ask too many questions of the plot, as the whole thing would rapidly start to fall apart. You just need to allow yourself to be taken along and enjoy the ride. As would be expected, the rescue is not entirely successful, largely due to the trigger-happy nature of one of the team, and during the escape launch, the suborbital craft is hit and damaged, meaning that it is not able to simply return to base, but remains in flight.

At this point, the rescue team become those in need of rescue. In something of a shift away from the relentlessness of the mission, the story moves into a slightly different mode. It expands from being a militaristic action thriller, to a larger playground, and becomes more of a cold war action thriller. All the pieces are in place for the remainder of the book to be played out. The forces behind the initial rescue had hoped very much to keep the mission under wraps, the missile that struck them transpires to have been fired on the initiative of one person and potentially damaging stories regarding the mission are leaked to the global press. The tensions are both political and personal.

The action sequences come thick and fast, alternated with the increasingly tense behind the scenes diplomacy. There should serve to heighten the intensity of the story. Unfortunately, there are a couple of issues here. First is that the geopolitics that underpins all this makes little sense and is often the result of senior people acting independently with little jurisdiction. It is more in the way of creating tension for the reader and carrying the story towards its conclusion, than it is with creating a complex political thriller that bears more considered analysis. While the action sequences are generally tightly written and drag the reader along with them, they occur with such frequency and the underlying story makes such little sense, that they start to blur into one another and as a result they actually become rather tedious.

Shirley made a name for himself in the eighties and nineties writing a sizeable body of intense and often deeply strange work, some of which was extraordinary. While he’s been producing interesting work, generally published by small presses, I was pleased to see a new novel coming from a major publisher. It just seems a shame that it falls so far short of his best work.

Review from BSFA Review 22 - Download your copy here.


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