In Rough Writers, the student-led creative writing club at our University that meets every week, there’s an ongoing friction between the fantasy writers and those who are into science fiction. Often the discussion is about magic versus science, but really I think a lot of the conflict is over practical plotline versus characterization. All too often fantasy dismisses the plausibility of a storyline, asking for suspension of disbelief simply so the reader can get into the meat of characterization. At the same time, too often hard core science fiction skips on its characters to explore substantive issues and plausible and intriguing storylines.
Containment is a first novel for Christian Cantrell, and although it’s a good example of hard science fiction, it also contains some of the foibles that come with that genre. I found it fascinating enough that I finished it in two days. At the same time, I found myself giving the author dispensation for the sins I preach against in my own writing classes.
Here is the storyline, straight from Amazon:
A brilliant young scientist and one of the first humans born on Venus, Arik works tirelessly to perfect the science of artificial photosynthesis, a project crucial to the future of his home, V1. The colony was built on the harsh Venusian surface by the Founders, the first humans to establish a permanent extraterrestrial settlement. Arik’s research becomes critical when he awakens from an unexplained, near-fatal accident and learns that his wife is three months pregnant. Unless Arik’s research uncovers a groundbreaking discovery, V1’s oxygen supply will not be able to support the increase in population that his baby represents.
As Arik works against time, he begins to untangle the threads of his accident, which seem inextricably linked to what lies outside the protective walls of V1—a world where the caustic atmosphere and extreme heat make all forms of known life impossible. For its entire existence, Arik’s generation has been expected to help solve the problems of colonization. But as Arik digs deeper and deeper, he discovers alarming truths about the planet that the Founders have kept hidden. With growing urgency and increasing peril, Arik finds himself on a journey that will push him to the limits of his intelligence and take him beyond the unimaginable.
I chose to use their description because I was afraid if I were to describe it I would include spoilers by accident, and there are several places where spoilers would surely ruin the story. It’s a good story, especially if you enjoy hard science fiction. But Cantrell falls into the pit of feeling like he needs to explain everything–a major no-no in my book–even though most of it was stuff I wanted to know. Less than 20 percent of the story was what one might call dramatic action, but I still found it fascinating. And the twist near the end–and the ending–were well worth the story.
The other trap was a severe lack of characterization. Someone compared him to Asimov, and that’s true, but Asimov wasn’t any good at characterization either.
I’ve seen other hard science fiction authors steer away from exposition and include great characterization. See my latest review on Jack McDevitt’s books. So I know it’s possible. This was a good story, and I enjoyed it. It just could have been better.
I give it three stars.