Space … the final frontier. Our mission … to boldly go … and steal aliens’ shit…. Gate Crashers is a fun romp, as you might say. Patrick S. Tomlinson writes characters with a combination of humility and hilarity, people who might seem a little larger than life but still all-too-human. This is the Brooklyn Nine-Nine of space opera comedies.
The human exploration vessel Magellan suspends its thirty light-year voyage when it encounters a mysterious device of alien origin. As its crew tries to unlock its secrets, they remain in instantaneous contact with people back on Earth—people who weren’t even born when they set out. Meanwhile, members of the coalition of alien species who left that device out there have noticed its absence and the human spaceship. And that might not be so good for humanity. But if you were expecting a dramatic, high-stakes thriller, you might need to re-calibrate. There are high stakes here, up to and including the survival of humanity—but there is also a lot of humour.
Tomlinson explicitly acknowledges the influence of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in his acknowledgements, and that’s very clear. I was also reminded a lot of John Scalzi’s writing, where the stakes are quite high, but the interactions among humans and aliens are also a little silly. If you’re a fan of some of Scalzi’s SF, you would probably enjoy the dynamic here in Gate Crashers.
The main plot takes a while to get started, in my opinion. It’s a while before the humans actually get to confront the aliens, and while there are some good moments beforehand as the tension builds, the book gets really good once the humans are in the thick of an intergalactic power gambit. There’s a great mixture of types of people on the human crew. From the over-the-top womanizer with a tactical mind to the female captain with a lot of gumption to the physicist-turned-hyperspace-tech from Luna with no practical experience, there is plenty of disagreement and reluctant compromises. This keeps things interesting even as we learn about the alien species humanity has come into contact/conflict with.
Sometimes Tomlinson’s exposition is too infodumpy for my tastes. In this he emulates Adams quite a bit, but where Adams writes with years of experience parodying bureaucracy in British sketch and television comedy, Tomlinson brings a history of stand-up to the table. This results in a slightly different style and tone, and that is by no means bad, but it doesn’t appeal to me quite as much. Or maybe it’s just that, after years of read and re-reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so much my Trilogy in Four Parts omnibus’ dog ears have dog ears, nothing is as good as the original flavour. (I wholeheartedly agree with Tomlinson’s dismal opinion of the “sixth” book, may we never speak of it again.)
So I could do less with the descriptions of the Lividites’ emotional shortcomings and pharmacological solutions. Less with the discussions of the AESA administrator’s political misgivings. Still, these digressions aside, Gate Crashers is a remarkably straightforward and enjoyable story. The antagonists have clear motives beyond “humans must die”. The humans have a diverse range of viewpoints, from xenophobia to territorialism to curiosity and a spirit of exploration. The resolution to the plot is a little rushed, but on the whole, it’s an exciting enough book that I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it.
So if you want science fiction that is funny, and original, then you can’t really go wrong with this.