Review — Green Comet
by Jim Bowering
“As Elgin wakes from a centuries-long sleep, it’s to the memory of danger and loss. Even in the confusion of re-animation, he wonders if this time she’ll be there. But then he remembers the mysterious Visitor and the perilous mission that took Frances from him, and darkness closes in again. Even so, there’s always the hope that this time will be different, that they will have found a way. It was always like this. Hope would always rise again, no matter how often it was struck down.”
I recently had the pleasure of reading Green Comet, the first novel by Jim Bowering. It’s an interesting and well-written book that would have been perfectly at home among the classic science-fiction of the 1950s, when scientists were heroes and love was a simple matter. It’s a strong debut showing for the author but not without its faults.
Note: This is an in-depth review with some minor spoilers.
The novel begins with the main character, Elgin, waking from cryogenic hibernation on the titular Green Comet, an inhabited ball of ice hurtling through space. During the next few chapters, we’re treated to the disorienting experience of his slow return to consciousness, interspersed with the history of his (unnamed) homeworld.
The author doesn’t go into much detail about that planet, and we’re left to imagine that it’s generally Earth-like, while the dominant race would appear to be identical to modern humans. The one startling difference from our own world, and the one that sets up most of the novel’s intrigue, is the large quantity of nearby comets… so many, in fact, that at least two are visible in the sky at any given time.
After one of these comets nearly wipes out the species, they begin to take the dangers of their solar system more seriously, and thus begins their quest to not just tame the comets but eventually colonize them. This is spearheaded by a growing population of synesthetes, people whose senses mingle in peculiar ways, giving them unexpected talents, and it’s these unusual folk who fill out the novel’s cast.
In the present, Elgin is slowly introduced to the realities of modern life inside Green Comet, guided by a kind-hearted and childlike steward named Minder. The life Elgin once knew has changed in subtle ways after nearly two millennia of sleep, but there are some disturbing developments centered around his part in the comet’s history. He and his friends have since become legends (even religious figures, in some cases), and the story behind this forms the core of the narrative.
To that end, the story then jumps back to when Elgin first came to the comet, and proceeds in a mostly linear fashion until the final pages. We learn of his unique talents as an engineer, his adventures playing a futuristic sport called Flashball, and (eventually) his love of the brilliant Frances.
Most of Elgin’s challenges are related to his work as an engineer, while the largest conflicts are interpersonal matters and public debates. This holds true until the book’s denouement, in which a lingering threat finally surfaces after a remarkably long and deliberate build-up. The tension reaches a peak there, and we’re also treated to the story’s most touching and poignant moments… but the climax ultimately amounts to more of a fizzle than a bang.
After that, the narrative shifts into fast-forward as the intervening 1,800 years are accounted for. Loose threads are tied up and all the remaining questions are answered, rolling on to a finale that leaves the reader on a slightly mysterious though hopeful note.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the book. It had a warm spirit and sense of adventure, and the author’s scientific concepts were well thought out and interesting. From the biological modifications the colonists underwent to the kinds of food and furnishings they used, it’s clear Mr. Bowering put a lot of thought into how exactly people might live inside a comet. Some of his other concepts, such as the use of ice for much of their construction, stretched my disbelief somewhat uncomfortably, but never to breaking
The story features a small cast of characters, and though charming, I didn’t always feel that their personalities were deeply sketched out. We spend most of our time with Elgin who is bright, honest, and kind, but the story leans heavily on his innate synesthetic talent, which allows him to simply tell when something is “right.”
The most memorable character by far is Elgin’s best friend, Buzzard, who is portrayed as autistic (though it’s never said outright). Despite his social and physical awkwardness, the character is beloved by everyone in the comet, and (in my opinion) was always a welcome presence in any scene.
On the other end of the spectrum is Frances, Elgin’s love interest and (in many respects) the most important character in the novel. Described as smart, commanding, and compassionate, I nevertheless feel like her character was underdeveloped, and hampered by the fact that we mostly see her through the loving glow of Elgin’s gaze. We know all too well how Elgin feels about her by the end, but the character nevertheless remains something of a cipher.
Also of note in this regard is the game of Flashball, which the characters spend a lot of time practicing and playing throughout the novel. Even though it takes up considerable narrative space, I still don’t have much idea how the game is played, and that’s something I’d definitely like the author to have expanded on more.
The writing is solid and I was very rarely lost or confused about what was happening, even in a low-gravity environment where all the characters can fly and walk on walls. The prose is fluid and pulls you right along, with only a few awkward passages in the early parts that might have benefited from another editing pass.
That being said, the writing is often dispassionate and doesn’t show much style or flair, with the author frequently recounting events in an expository or summary style, free of perspective or emotion. This is especially disconcerting when dramatic moments are glossed over, with the focus instead placed on the quiet interpersonal scenes that follow. This is the case for many of the debates that are the key conflicts through the second act; we know broadly what happens and how the characters react, but these would have been excellent places to really dig in and describe so the reader can experience it for themselves.
At the top of the review, I mentioned that the book would fit in well with classics from the 1950s, and that’s a feeling I found inescapable while reading it. The characters are all moral and forthright; problems are solved through judicious applications of science and teamwork; and the entire story has a certain child-like naiveté and coyness that’s quite
charming. For my own personal taste, I tend to prefer a bit more grit, disgust, and dishonesty, but Green Comet won me over with its relentless hope and happiness.
The book is well copyedited and formatted (I found precisely one typo and one formatting error during my read). The subject matter should be suitable for audiences of any age, though younger readers will struggle with some of the more obscure vocabulary.
Considering the price (as free as air) and permissive license (Creative Commons, attribution, share alike), I can strongly recommend Green Comet, and I wish the author the best of luck with his next outing!
Chris J. Randolph
Thank you, Chris, for such an in-depth review of Green Comet. Almost as many words here as in the book. I hope it didn’t leave you feeling like this fellow.-)