ELITE: MOSTLY HARMLESS
By Kate Russell
United Kingdom: Fantastic Books Publishing, 2014. $32.50
8 hours / 4 CDs
Anyone who remembers the seminal video game Elite that appeared in the early 1980s will welcome the arrival of the game in its 21st century incarnation, Elite: Dangerous—now accompanied by a series of novels, authorised by the writers of the game, to enhance the Elite experience.
Kate Russell’s debut novel, Elite: Mostly Harmless, is one in this series. A book that can be enjoyed by newcomers to the Elite universe, it is also filled with insider references and details—a universe in itself that veteran fans will fully appreciate.
Elite: Mostly Harmless is a witty, fast-moving, and sometimes violent comedy set in the distant future. The book opens as the main protagonist, a space trader named Angel Rose, makes a botched landing on the Slough Orbital Space Station.
Slough is a deeply unpleasant planet of mines, prisons, and high gravity (a joke that will appeal to UK audiences and fans of the British sitcom The Office). It is Angel’s home. She is the daughter of the space station’s commander, but what few privileges this may afford her, Angel doesn’t want. Her bungled landing results in damage to both her ship and the station’s docking bay, incurring charges she can’t pay. She loses her cargo to the interferences of her overbearing mother, and any further credit and reputation she may have had are swept away in a drunken gambling spree that lands her in a brawl, then in jail.
She has no choice but to take on a high-risk assignment carrying a cargo of gold through treacherous territory. From that point, disaster follows disaster, and double cross follows double cross. The plot, as crowded as the universe Angel inhabits, follows her through subsequent careers as prisoner, pirate, assassin, and game player in her effort to save her own life and possibly the universe.
The locations change from the Slough Orbital Space Station to the most dangerous outreaches of the explored universe. Russell gives tantalising glimpses of worlds that could stand more exploration such as the complex society of the high-gravity planet Slough, the rackety asteroid belt where the space pirates hang out, and the dangerous and lawless farthest reaches of space.
Humorous novels are notoriously tricky to get right. Too many books fall into the trap of subordinating plot and character to humour in the form of a series of gags. Elite: Mostly Harmless is a gripping thriller with a range of well-conceived characters. The wit is intrinsic to the narrative as the plot follows the disaster-prone Angel through a series of adventures she did not choose and does not want to experience. Just occasionally, Russell’s touch slips. A violent confrontation between a would-be rapist and two apparently helpless women is nasty enough to be convincing, and though the denouement is satisfying, the realism cuts through the humour a bit too much.
The use of an advanced robot DORIS (Detroit Orbits Remote Investment Surveillance) comes close to being a genre cliché. DORIS is well-imagined and a good source of unforced humour, but in the field of sci-fi, any such character must stand (and many fail) the test of comparison with standard-bearers such as WALL-E and Marvin the Paranoid Android from the universe of Douglas Adams.
The audiobook is read by Russell herself. She is an experienced broadcasting journalist who makes regular appearances on the BBC. A problem with audiobooks can be over interpretation, as actors put their own marks on characters. In this case, we get the writer’s interpretation of her characters, and Russell leaves enough space for the listener’s own imagination to work.
This is an augmented audiobook, with sound effects and background noises taken from the game itself. This embeds the audiobook firmly in the world of Elite, the game. There is also—a bonus to Elite fans—a cameo appearance by David Braben, the creator of Elite, reading a short section of the book.
Elite: Mostly Harmless is a novel that stands alone, but also fits neatly into the infinitely recreated world of the Elite universe. The audiobook is well worth a listen, both for Elite fans (who will enjoy the extras packed into it), and for people who enjoy their thrillers, their sci-fi, and their humour in audio form.