Reviewed by Peter Spasov
Title: This Insubstantial Pageant
Author: Kate Story
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Paperback, Kindle
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Date: October, 2017
Retail Price: $17.99/$9.99
Can Shakespeare and science fiction coexist? Absolutely. This Insubstantial Pageant is the author’s first attempt in the genre and she pulls it off with wit and quirky flavor. The novel is a rollicking and occasionally explicit adaption of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in combination with speculative science.
This isn’t the first science fiction based on Shakespeare. The 1956 classic film Forbidden Planet loosely modeled The Tempest. However, Story follows the original play much more closely. Shakespeare wrote it at a time when Europeans were beginning to use the Americas for economic potential and some even speculated distant planets held economic promise. Like these earlier Europeans, humanity is now beginning to expand into a new frontier.
This book takes place in a world where nuclear warfare and environmental disaster enabled corporations to rule Earth. Prosperina Conti ran Prosper Inc. to develop a revolutionary botanical source of energy. Then her brother Tony ousted her, and Al King of Rare Earth bought out Prosper to suppress the technology. With the assistance of Joe Gallo, an elderly computer genius, Prosperina escaped off world with her infant daughter Milana. The novel portrays Prosperina as a corporate version of an Einstein or Newton. Alas she ignored office politics, thus forcing exile on a remote planet named Lalande-21185b.
Like the original Tempest, Story organizes her novel into five Acts followed by an Epilogue. Major characters correspond closely to those in Shakespeare’s original, such as a corporate executive replacing Shakespeare’s king of Naples. Instead of a storm created by Prospero’s magic, Prosperina diverts a light-sail ship containing Al King (the corporate executive) and his party who are then forced to crash land on Lalande-21185b in an escape pod. Prosperina tells her daughter Miranda about how they became exiled on the planet and that the crew includes her enemies. Next, Prosperina sends Auriel, one of her bioengineered creations, to trick Al King’s son Fernando into believing his father is dead. Later, Milana meets Fernando and they fall in love
Next, Auriel leads the party towards Prosperina’s pod. Intrigue develops when Tony and Johann, Al King’s brother, plot to take over Rare Earth. A separate party consists of Troy, a kind of buffoon, and Stephen the socialist atheist boatswain, both of whom are drunk and lost. Kaleeban, another of Prosperina’s creations, convinces Stephen he could take over the planet. Meanwhile Auriel plays havoc and dissent among the two groups. Eventually Auriel brings Al King’s party to Prosperina where father and son reunite. Al King and Properina come to an arrangement. Another escape pod arrives, thus providing the means to return to Earth. Kaleeban arrives with Stephen and Troy and the novel reaches its conclusion with an Epilogue.
Shakespeare’s conclusion has Prospero abandoning magic so he may return to his previous life. However Story’s Epilogue is deeper and is related to the novel’s general ecological message.
Space enthusiasts may enjoy some of the descriptions of technology in the book. Interstellar travel is based on light sails travelling near light speed. The technology uses a Fresnel lens at Mercury, includes a solar sail braking procedure and involves cryogenic sleep. Lalande-21185b is a fictitious Earth-like planet orbiting the red dwarf star Lalande 21185. An exoplanet catalogue, however, lists an actual Lalande-21185b with a mass of nearly four Earths.
During exile Prosperina speculates about the conditions on the planet that enabled life to evolve, including its lack of magnetic field. She investigates the native photosynthesis mechanism. Occasional flares from the star are an ongoing issue. Sounds are more intense due to atmosphere differences. The native plant life is black because of limited light emission from a red dwarf. These plants also have electrical interfacing capability for manipulation into anything. Prosperina bioengineered some of them into mobile vegetative sentient life forms, providing a replacement for the magical spirits inhabiting the island in The Tempest. Hence Auriel and Kaleeban are the analogs of Shakespeare’s Ariel and Calaban.
The Acknowledgements credit assistance from veteran SF authors such as Ben Bova, Eric Choi, Alyx Dellamonica and Kelly Robson.
This book is a brilliant mix of scientific speculation written in a narrative and sometimes poetic style. Story writes about the loss of hope when a tidal-locked planet has no dawn to reboot a day. Yet her prose is often filled with tongue-in-cheek humor. I’m guessing the title is both homage and a pun on the word planet. Although technically astute readers may find fault in certain descriptions of interstellar travel, it doesn’t detract from good storytelling.
I recommend this book because it addresses the topic of space settlement in a playful way and I personally have a weakness for the great bard. In Star Trek, Chancellor Gorkon declares, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” Now you can experience him in the original Kate Story.
© 2018 Peter Spasov
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