In Search of Engaging New SF

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars by Chris Stevenson is the debut title of Engage SF, a new imprint from Vancouver’s Engage Books. The story opens mid-emergency with Captain Zachary “Zaz” Crowe and the ragtag crew of the refitted Russian ore freighter Shenandoah, the least likely but most readily available candidates to divert a rogue asteroid from ploughing through the middle of a busy space transit corridor. The mission is a qualified success. Heavily qualified, which we quickly learn is something of Planet Janitor’s (as the crew of the Shenandoah style themselves) modus operandi.

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars by Chris Stevenson is the debut title of Engage SF, a new imprint from Vancouver’s Engage Books. The story opens mid-emergency with Captain Zachary “Zaz” Crowe and the ragtag crew of the refitted Russian ore freighter Shenandoah, the least likely but most readily available candidates to divert a rogue asteroid from ploughing through the middle of a busy space transit corridor. The mission is a qualified success. Heavily qualified, which we quickly learn is something of Planet Janitor’s (as the crew of the Shenandoah style themselves) modus operandi.

They are a motley band of misfits in a grand tradition that stretches back through Firefly, Riverworld and The Dirty Dozen, all the way to Stagecoach and beyond. It’s a well-established trope, but it’s robust enough to be a real thrill when done right. And sure enough, Planet Janitor does deliver an interstellar romp that hearkens to the best of Robert Heinlein or Philip José Farmer. Alas, many readers may find that the book’s flaws outweigh its charms.

After knocking aside the asteroid, the crew of the Shenandoah retire to a lively spaceport bar where we get the chance to meet the characters on a more intimate basis. Zaz Crowe is an entrepreneur specializing in space clean-up and reclamation. He’s a shrewd businessman with a do-gooder streak that occasionally gets in the way of his ambition. He’s fiercely loyal to his crew, on the days when he’s not too self-involved to notice them. His pilot and second-in-command is the matronly Samantha King. She’s a competent helmsman, but the notability of that apparently pales in comparison to her breasts, which have been variously referred to as “ample,” “hefty” and “abundant” by the twelfth page. Of a different mold from the same anti-feminist factory is Dendy Dollar, the Shenandoah’s young and achingly beautiful ecologist. Dendy exists primarily to throw herself at Zaz, thus illuminating his moral character when he rebuffs her in favour of a more fatherly relationship. For a while.

No team of outcasts would be complete without a demolition expert and in this case, that role is filled by Carl Stromboli, resident curmudgeon and Italian caricature. And then there are the two interchangeable heads-in-the-clouds scientists of the crew, Lyle and Paddy. One of them wears a hat; it’s not important to remember which one. Finally, the crew is rounded out by the hulking but predictably none-too-bright mechanic and one-man security squad, Galoot.

Oh, and then there’s the cloyingly sweet stowaway, Carybell the reformed prostitute. If it weren’t for the fact that the men in the book are equally one-dimensional exaggerations, the unexamined heavy-handedness of the mother-virgin-whore triad of Planet Janitor’s female characters would be damning. As it is, it’s merely cringe-inducing. But this isn’t the kind of story that aims to please on the weight of its characters. This is a rollicking plot-driven adventure and, on that front, it fares much better.

Zaz and his crew don’t dally for long before a new mission lands in their lap. Henry Gable of vast and powerful Orion Industries has a contract with an astronomical reward and Planet Janitor is just the outfit for the job. There’s a planet that needs prepping for development, but it’s a 25-year round trip in the cryopods away. And that’s not the only catch. Gable refuses to tell Zaz and his crew what they’ll find at the other end of the jump or what they’re expected to do when they get there. If he told them, Gable explains, they wouldn’t take the job. Inexplicably, Planet Janitor can’t wait to sign on. It’s too big a pill to swallow, especially when Stevenson has gone out of his way to make it clear that the crew are financially stable and have no shortage of less insane work prospects. It’s an awkward and transparent ploy to keep the reader in the dark so that when, fifty pages later, the Shenandoah crash lands on the alien surface and finds the entire world blanketed in a ghastly layer of humanoid skeletons it’s as much a shock to us as the crew.

“God dammit,” you might be thinking, “can’t you at least say ‘Spoiler Alert’ before you drop something like that?”

That would be a fair complaint if it weren’t for the fact that, despite the great pains the book takes to keep this twist a secret, the cat is let out of the bag in the cover art, of all places.

Once that’s out of the way, however — once the introductions are done, the catch is revealed, and crew is stranded on a planetary mausoleum a dozen light years from home — the story really starts to get interesting. I won’t spoil the surprises that Sidus (as they christen the world) holds, but the dangers are intimidating, the wonders evocative and the thread that ties it all together always just a little more tangled than it seems. There remain some rough patches in the telling (most chapters, for example, are prefaced by entirely omittable Captain’s Log from Zaz summarizing the previous chapter, as though we had just returned from commercial break), but they become increasingly easy to ignore and forgive as the plot gets rolling. And by the time the story reaches its pat-but-gratifying conclusion, readers may find that the characters, though no less ludicrous or one-dimensional, have grown on them.

Though this is the first work of original fiction to come from Engage, the Vancouver-based publisher is hardly a newcomer on the scene. Engage Books began in 2008 as a publisher of classic book reissues, moving on to publish successful original cookbooks and poetry collections beginning in 2009. Their lovely Classic Books lines show that the people at Engage know what they’re doing when it comes to book design. Cover gaffe aside, this eye for design is evident in Planet Janitor, and the interior illustrations by Toni Zhang are delightful.

Founder Alexis Roumanis told us that it had been his intention to move into science fiction all along. “When I started Engage Books, my original goal was to publish science fiction. However it does take a lot of capital to produce a book of original prose, so I began publishing classic titles. This allowed me to build a list of titles that would generate the income needed to produce new books, [but] Engage SF was the reason that I started Engage Books.”

Engage Books are an interesting animal in the landscape of Canadian publishing. They are the only small press to have successfully combined digital printing and on-demand production (two things which have gotten them dismissed in the past as illegitimate) with traditional acquisitions, editing, author pay models and distribution. Larger presses have begun to embrace digital printing and on-demand production for certain product lines, but always quietly. Likewise, most small presses that use these technologies are quite circumspect about it, for fear of being labeled a vanity publisher. Not so Engage who, being quite confident in their place on the scene, tout the economic and ecological benefits of the process.

“I could see that the traditional publishing process was falling apart,” says Roumanis. “Major publishers were dropping midlist authors, and concentrating on blockbuster novels. Small publishers and independent bookstores were closing their doors. And forty percent of all books printed were being pulped, because of overeager publishers hedging their bets on large print runs. In my opinion POD is the future of publishing.”

We at AE wish Alexis and the rest of the Engage SF team the absolute best of luck. A new professional publisher of science fiction is a very welcome addition to the Canadian publishing world, especially one with a proven track record of quality and a willingness to experiment with new modes of production. As a first offering, Planet Janitor’s failings are more forgivable than they would otherwise be. Hopefully future titles from Engage SF will round our their list and help to stake out their role as a player in genre fiction.


Planet Janitor will hit shelves on Jan 1, 2011.
Engage Books is currently soliciting novel-length science fiction manuscripts to help build the Engage SF list as well as short stories for an upcoming anthology.

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