Humanity makes a sudden and unexpected splash on the interstellar scene in Patrick Tomlinson’s science-fiction novel ‘Gate Crashers’

April 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 13, 2019

Patrick S. Tomlinson’s 2018 science-fiction story, Gate Crashers, is an uneven but promising work.

At the heart of the book is a slight twist on a familiar premise: Homo sapiens discover an alien device and use it to reverse-engineer revolutionary technologies, including faster-than-light travel. Tomlinson’s novelty is that the object is discovered in deep space — literally the middle of nowhere — by humanity’s most ambitious crewed extrasolar flight. However, the crew is not alone…

…and not just because there are aliens about.

Due to the miracle of quantum entanglement radio, or QER (for which read: ansible), which enables instantaneous communication, the crew of the American/European Union Starship Magellan is able to share its discovery with a small group of scientists at the American/European Space Space Administration, the 24th century’s successor to NASA. The ground-based team of whiz kids team up with the astronauts to unlock amazing secrets.

Eventually, Magellan is joined by a second crew aboard a hyperdrive-capable vessel that can instantaneously travel unimaginable distances. (The new ship allows Magellan to sail in its draft.) Captain Allison Ridgeway and her explorers find themselves working, often uneasily, alongside a contingent of previously Earthbound johnnies-come-lately, some with a scientific mindset and others with a military one.

The humans will need to draw on all their varying fields of expertise as they encounter two different factions from the Assembly of Sentient Species, the galactic equivalent of the United Nations.

One faction is represented by D’armic, a very polite, extremely by-the-book Bureau of Frontier Resources manager on extended individual duty. He is a Lividite, a member of a species that now require chemicals in order to experience emotions. (Their pharmacopeia includes Resentitol and Terrorital.)

Much more ominously, Ridgeway and her compatriots also encounter patrol cruiser No. 7803 of the Turemok fleet. The Turemok are a militant species, and the captain of the cruiser — as well as at least one highly placed member of the admiralty — are eager to put their martial might to the test after a prolonged period of galactic tranquility.

‘Gate Crashers’ (2018) by Patrick S. Tomlinson.

If you’ll allow me to back up a moment, the story begins as the ship’s computer pulls Ridgeway out of cryogenic storage because it’s detected an anomaly, as described here:

“How long have I been out?” 

“Three weeks, two days, seven—” 

“Three weeks?” she asked. Crews woke for one week per year to keep their minds fresh. They’d gone through the cycle less than a month ago.… “We won’t reach Solonis B for eight months.” 

“That’s correct, Captain. However, I require your judgment.” 

“You mean you require my authorization to indulge your judgment.” 

The Magellan reflected on this for a moment, and decided there was no reason to lie. “Yes, Captain. Please join me on the bridge.” 

“I’m not dressed.” 

“You’re the only person awake.” 

“I’m freezing and covered in cryo snot, Maggie.” 

“Yes, of course. I await your arrival on the bridge once you’re more comfortable.” 

“It’s all right. You’re in a hurry, I get it.” 

Allison staggered along the wall toward the showers. The hot water rinsed away the cold, viscous fluid clinging to her body, which felt and smelled like used fryer oil. She was glad not to wake with the headache for once. 

Allison put her hair in a towel and walked to her locker. She retrieved a plush, embarrassingly expensive pink bathrobe with matching kitten slippers. It was a small luxury she afforded herself, and she sank into the depths of its soft warmth. 

She moved to the RepliCaterer and finished her waking/hangover routine with an order of hot coffee with double cream, two sugars and a grape popsicle, which it produced in seconds. The RepliCaterer was an amazing device. Half waste-recycling plant, half food processor. It was best for morale to ignore which half the food came from. Crews had long ago named it the DAQM — Don’t Ask Questions Machine. Feeling vaguely human, the fuzzy pink captain made her way to the transit tube. 

The bridge was awash with the gymnastic light of holograms and the dry breeze of air processors. It had the sterile yet lived-in look of a small-town doctor’s lounge. Allison dropped into her chair and spilled the remains of her coffee into her lap. … “One of those mornings.” 

“Actually, Captain, it’s 1537.” 

“The worst mornings usually start in the middle of the afternoon, Maggie. So what’s important enough to wake me eight months early?” 

By this point, the observant reader will have picked up on two important things about Gate Crashers. One is that Tomlinson is lovingly parodying Star Trek — for Lividites, read Vulcans; for Turemok; read Klingons; for the Assembly of Sentient Species, read United Federation of Planets; etc. The other is that the author is working in the comic tradition.

For me, the subgenre of science fiction humor essentially begins and ends with the six-book trilogy known as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Technically speaking, Douglas Adams’s opus isn’t the only comedic outing in speculative fiction. But I think my lack of familiarity with this type of science fiction speaks at least in part to how difficult it is to pull off this kind of writing at book length.

But while Tomlinson — a self-professed standup comedian — doesn’t consistently produce belly-busting laughs, Gate Crashers does elicit a few smirks and chuckles. Many of his characters are earnest and likable, and it’s inspiring to see the human underdogs handle hazardous situations and navigate complex alien schemes. It’s possible Tomlinson’s publisher may have done the author a disservice by not pitching the book at science-fiction–loving teenagers, whom I think might be a more receptive audience than older SF readers as a whole.

Although Gate Crashers is apparently the first novel that Tomlinson has written, he published a science-fiction trilogy, “Children of a Dead Earth,” over three years beginning in 2015. He also has a new (evidently stand-alone) comic science-fiction novel, Starship Repo, coming out next month. I imagine I’ll be sampling some more of Tomlinson’s writing in the future.

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