Review of Docile
Doyle, Tom. Border Crosser. Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, 2020. Paperback, 383 pp. $15.99. ISBN 9781953034144.
Tom Doyle, fresh from his American Craftsmen trilogy (one part Clancy-esque Jack Ryan, one part Kurtz-ish Adept series, all parts wahoo) turns to space opera with his October, 2020 novel Border Crosser. The back cover tells us the novel features Eris, “a charismatic spy with a violent borderline personality and emotional amnesia,” a condition that allows her to bypass scanners meant to assess the intentions of galactic travelers.
Border Crosser serves aptly as title and descriptor; Eris crosses many a border in her adventures, during which she unknowingly instigates galactic war and an investigation into her employers, with whom she communicates by chatty, light-hearted correspondence (no drudgery of espionage paperwork for her!), ultimately joining her “friends” and family in a frothy resolution of most of the major issues of the plot. She is transhuman, sexually omnivorous, emotionally fragmented yet true at her core, and carries out a character development arc of self-discovery and self-identity. Eris begins as the epitome of a Bond villain: charismatic, violent, cartoonish. In the end she…saves the galaxy? Gaining agency is her game: she retains the charisma, a violent nature, and a “painted in broad strokes” quality. Any galaxy saving serves her goal of self-determination.
The cover copy fails to mention Eris’s most interesting attribute: a working and productive artist, she crafts her art from the bodily fluids and DNA of those she interacts with. Yes, quite often those bodily fluids. Facing torture at the hands of a minor enemy, she blithely suffers it all—until the villain begins to torch one of her works of art.
If one refers to the excellent The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Hartwell and Cramer (2006), it becomes apparent Doyle knows space opera, as the antecedents of Border Crosser appear everywhere one looks in the table of contents. The novel transgresses like Samuel R. Delany, plays on a big field like Robert Scheckley, Lois McMaster Bujuold, and Iain M. Banks, performs on the inner field like Catharine Asaro, and at least glances at the political as might Charles Stross. Any mangling of references remains my fault, as are any blatant omissions.
This is not to say Border Crosser represents a derivative work. It expresses an original energy all its own. Where Banks’ Culture presents a wealth of opportunity for redefining the human, Eris’s madness expresses a transhuman relationship to technology that would find no place in Banks’ studied, clear, and essentially hopeful works. And where Larry Niven’s Known Space setting postulates a future Earth with cheap teleportation, Doyle offers us a more likely scenario, and merely as a sideshow to the main plot: an Earth with expensive teleportation, where the children of the very upper crust spend ordinary fortunes to leap “into low orbit and on to some antique space station refitted as a microgravity pleasure palace…” to “the bottom of the sea and into an open-water club designed like some silent film fantasy of Neptunian delights.” All of this operates in the service of the spy trope “do something interesting until the villain’s kids invite you to party.”
Later Eris recreates herself in a (male—another purported border crossed!) genetically constructed body of a species exterminated by one of the junior villains of the piece while at the same time compelling one of a growing number of her “friends” to craft a doppelganger with a limited subset of her memories; this complicates a family reunion through questions of identity (border crossed!). The novel proceeds through the plot with increasing speed; the narrative structure is one that invites closure at several points but resists, instead spiraling out to the next, always wider environment: Eris moves from ship to planet to interplanetary system to ongoing interstellar war to final galactic showdown, and the pace increases to cover the ever-lengthier amount of spiral along the way. Contemplate the path a needle takes from the start of a vinyl record to the end.
Practiced readers instinctively assess important narrative cues merely from holding a text—one can feel where one is as the pages turn. As I read this novel electronically due to the limitations of Covid-19 precautions, without that page “feel” the novel unspooled unsettlingly, a practice I recommend. At least one natural stopping point went by like a bypassed rest area on a freeway: looks like a good place to…nope, not stopping here! Reading a paper copy of the novel would not have disoriented one in the least—the fingers’ pinch of pages would reveal how much story there was to go. Where good old James Bond (as presented in his Daniel Craig persona) travels through several plots to arrive at his ultimate showdown between the powers controlling his life, Eris spirals up through such a sequence in an extended sprint, all one show, resolving a factional clash playing out around the galaxy while leaving plenty of sequel material to follow.
Using this text in a college classroom requires fortitude: while the frequent sex is largely un-graphic, it is plentiful and nearly always violent. Eris, a “borderline personality” as the back cover text tells us, stops at murder when inconvenient and not part of her work or art. “Trigger warning?” anyone? The novel presents elements of the transhuman and includes characters who are examples of the posthuman. Gender issues abound, and many a scholar could sharpen their knives for a discourse on Tom Doyle, though I would recommend perception precede action, and caution in any event.
Doyle includes thanks in an afterward to two different workshops: The Clarion Writer’s Workshop and the Writers Group from Hell. In addition, he thanks a number of editors and commenters who “helped me with this tale.” That the dynamism and hard corners of this novel weren’t rounded off by such group reviews is good. But that also means the author had access to plenty of feedback. It is not a self-indulgent work. It is not easy to keep a train on the tracks when it speeds so quickly along such a spiral. So: caution before judgement. Border Crosser embodies space opera wahoo. Readers of The Space Opera Renaissance might find it hard to place—a call back to the wide-open wahoo of E. E. “Doc” Smith? Yes. Delany-esque? Indeed. Bujold-y galactic spy wahoo? For sure. Banksian enabling tech wahoo? Yep! But by crossing all those borders, it is Doyle-ian. Doyle-esque? Question instead the need for such a categorization. In closing, I suggest letting wahoo be wahoo. Doyle-esque wahoo.
Ed Carmien teaches writing, science fiction, fantasy, and other literatures at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. He is: a member of the SFWA, a member of the SFRA, section hiking the Appalachian Trail, of the belief C.J. Cherryh doesn’t get enough critical attention, and full of admiration for the current incarnation of the SFRA Review.