This is the funniest science fiction novel I have read in quite a while. Set in the year 3013, not long after galactic civilisation barely escaped an artificial intelligence apocalypse and banned fully self-aware robots, the story is related by Sasha, one of a small number of Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Androids built to be useful without running the risk of their taking over. SASHA robots are equipped with an impossible-to-defeat watchdog module which causes a hard reboot whenever they are on the verge of having an original thought. The limitation of the design proved a serious handicap, and all of their manufacturers went bankrupt. Our narrator, Sasha, was bought at an auction by the protagonist, Rex Nihilo, for thirty-five credits in a lot of “ASSORTED MACHINE PARTS”. Sasha is Rex’s assistant and sidekick.
Rex is an adventurer. Sasha says he “never had much of an interest in anything but self-preservation and the accumulation of wealth, the latter taking clear precedence over the former.” Sasha’s built in limitations (in addition to the new idea watchdog, she is unable to tell a lie, but if humans should draw incorrect conclusions from incomplete information she provides them, well…) pose problems in Rex’s assorted lines of work, most of which seem to involve scams, gambling, and contraband of various kinds. In fact, Rex seems to fit in very well with the universe he inhabits, which appears to be firmly grounded in Walker’s Law: “Absent evidence to the contrary, assume everything is a scam”. Evidence appears almost totally absent, and the oppressive tyranny called the Galactic Malarchy, those who supply it, the rebels who oppose it, entrepreneurs like Rex working in the cracks, organised religions and cults, and just about everybody else, appear to be on the make or on the take, looking to grift everybody else for their own account. Cosmologists attribute this to the “Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.” Rex does his part, although he usually seems to veer between broke and dangerously in debt.
Perhaps that’s due to his somewhat threadbare talent stack. As Shasha describes him, Rex doesn’t have a head for numbers. Nor does he have much of a head for letters, and “Newtonian physics isn’t really his strong suit either”. He is, however, occasionally lucky, or so it seems at first. In an absurdly high-stakes card game with weapons merchant Gavin Larviton, reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy, Rex manages to win, almost honestly, not only Larviton’s personal starship, but an entire planet, Schnufnaasik Six. After barely escaping a raid by Malarchian marines led by the dread and squeaky-voiced Lord Heinous Vlaak, Rex and Sasha set off in the ship Rex has won, the Flagrante Delicto, to survey the planetary prize.
It doesn’t take Rex long to discover, not surprisingly, that he’s been had, and that his financial situation is now far more dire than he’d previously been able to imagine. If any of the bounty hunters now on his trail should collar him, he could spend a near-eternity on the prison planet of Gulagatraz (the names are a delight in themselves). So, it’s off the rebel base on the forest moon (which is actually a swamp; the swamp moon is all desert) to try to con the Frente Repugnante (all the other names were taken by rival splinter factions, so they ended up with “Revolting Front”, which was translated to Spanish to appear to Latino planets) into paying for a secret weapon which exists only in Rex’s imagination.
Thus we embark upon a romp which has a laugh-out-loud line about every other page. This is comic science fiction in the vein of Keith Laumer‘s Retief stories. As with Laumer, Kroese achieves the perfect balance of laugh lines, plot development, interesting ideas, and recurring gags (there’s a planet-destroying weapon called the “plasmatic entropy cannon” which the oft-inebriated Rex refers to variously as the “positronic endoscopy cannon”, “pulmonary embolism cannon”, “ponderosa alopecia cannon”, “propitious elderberry cannon”, and many other ways). There is a huge and satisfying reveal at the end—I kind of expected one was coming, but I’d have never guessed the details.
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Kroese, Robert. Starship Grifters. Seattle: 47North, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4778-1848-0.