By Cheryl Morgan
Another new name that Pyr has brought to its 2005 list is Scott Mackay. When I say "new", thatís certainly new to me, and possibly to most SF readers, but Mackay already has eight novels under his belt and a couple of prestigious awards for mystery novels. He has even, according to the blurb, written another SF novel. Having read Tides, his offering from Pyr, I think he has a little to learn about SF.
The basic setting of Tides is a world with two moons whose gravitational pull creates massive "tides" in parts of the oceans that make travel from one part of the world to another so dangerous that no one does it. It is a very long time since I studied physical oceanography so I was prepared to take this on trust and assume it would work. Much of the rest of the book, sadly, could not be granted the same clemency.
The most obvious thing about the book is that it has the feel of a setting for an Original Star Trek episode. In one part of the world we have a paradise in which everyone has what they need and is happy. In this country, crime is almost unknown. The worst thing that people can do is tell lies, and for that they are exiled to the Island of Liars. On the other side of the globe (or at least beyond the fearsome tides) is a barren, forbidding continent with little in the way of natural resources. The people who live here are nasty, brutal and thoroughly untrustworthy. For them, backstabbing is a way of life. And we can tell that they are Evil because they are big, lizard-like monsters with sharp teeth and a macho attitude. And of course they have black skin.
This sort of thing was interesting social satire when H.G. Wells did it in The Time Machine, but by the 1970s people were already seeing the flaws. In fact I have done Star Trek an injustice, because they did that story about a planet where half the people were black on the right side of their bodies and the other half black on the left side of their bodies. Mackay is not doing anything new, and heís not doing the old idea terribly well.
But what really ruined the book for me were the inconsistencies. For example, the paradise-living humans have everything they need and therefore no crime, right? Except we are told that metal is very rare and valuable. So why donít people steal it? Elsewhere we are told that the lizard-people are so macho that they refuse to use crossbows, even when they capture some. They only fight hand-to-hand. So why are they happy to use cannon from their ships? Then there is the point where the hero of the book, the first man to master the tides and discover the country of the lizard people, is returning home. He says heís been away for eight months. But in that time he has taught his lizard captors to plant wheat and gone through a harvest, and he didnít start until a fair way into his captivity.
This might all seem rather picky, but it is precisely the sort of picky that an SF reader will do almost as a reflex action. To do SF properly you have to get things right, because otherwise your readers have serious problems with their suspension of disbelief. Thereís no doubt that Mackay can write. Thatís not an issue. What he canít do (as yet) is write good SF. I hope he sticks with it, because this sort of thing is really just a question of solid application and getting other people (especially your editor) to cast a critical eye over your setting. Any obvious logic flaws have to be rooted out. Once you have that discipline youíll be able to keep your readers with you and good reviews will follow.