Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Brute Orbits cover art Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski

HarperPrism science fiction - copyright 1998
216 pages

Book read in October 1998

Rating: 1/10  (Yecch!)

Review by Aaron Hughes

       I'd like to start out this review by noting that my reviews are entirely and unabashedly my subjective reactions to the books in question.  I make no pretense of being able to give an objective evaluation of the literary merits of a given work - I don't see how anyone can claim to do that.  If an author of a work I didn't care for should by any strange chance happen to read my negative review, I hope he or she will understand that you can't please everyone.  Case in point - I have a few negative things to say about George Zebrowski's Brute Orbits, even though others liked it enough to award the book the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel.

       An aside about the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which should not be confused with the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer).  Campbell Memorial Award winners (and second- and third-place selections) are chosen by a small committee, unlike the better known Hugo and Nebula awards, which are voted on by hundreds or thousands of fans and writers, respectively.  Thus, the winners do not need to have the kind of broad appeal that is necessary to win a Hugo or Nebula.  That's how you get less than famous winners such as Gloriana by Michael Moorcock and Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton.

       This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Many very capable writers don't get the consideration they merit for major awards because they don't write best-sellers, they're not American, etc.  For example, I am a huge fan of Greg Egan, who has won the Campbell best novel award but never even been nominated for a Hugo for best novel (he finally won a well-deserved best novella Hugo last year), perhaps in part because most of his novels are not published in the United States until after their Hugo eligibility has expired.

       It does mean, however, that the Campbell award is subject to the tastes and whims of the individual jurors for each year.  In some years, the jurors have refused to give a first place award at all.  In 1976, they gave the award to a six-year old novel, citing the lack of any "truly outstanding original novel" that year.  Apparently the jurors were not impressed with The Forever War, which swept the other awards for that year and is now considered an all-time classic.  I suspect the changing composition of the committee explains things like Kim Stanley Robinson receiving the award for Pacific Edge, but not for any of his very successful Mars novels a few years later.  Similarly, Connie Willis won the award for Lincoln's Dreams, yet was not even placed in the top three for Hugo winners Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.  The awards in those years went to two novels that otherwise received little attention, Brother to Dragons by Charles Sheffield and the book I intended to review before I went off on this lengthy tangent, Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski.

       Having made my disclaimer that this review is my subjective opinion, to be taken with a grain of salt, I will proceed.

       Brute Orbits sucks.

       I bought this on impulse because the premise sounded interesting - in the future, prisoners are confined inside asteroids, which are then placed in orbits timed to return to Earth at the end of their terms, thus obviating the need for guards.

       So much for trusting my impulses.  This book consists almost entirely of (1) rambling discourses I usually found utterly incoherent, and (2) characters we barely know forcibly raping each other.  Take away Zebrowski's recurrent rape fantasies and you have no story at all.  Zebrowski gives his characters absolutely nothing to do but watch the grass grow.  Nor does he bother to explain how it is that grass does grow inside an asteroid, or where all the food comes from, etc.

       For the first sixty pages, Zebrowski at least tries to develop the characters of two prisoners, Tasarov and Howes, but then he loses all interest in them.  (Tasarov reappears only very briefly late in the book, and we never see Howes again.) After that first section, there is no attempt at characterization the rest of the way.  I suppose Zebrowski dispensed with that because he fancies this a Stapledonian epic, but he doesn't follow any of the asteroids long enough for us to see any development of the inmates' cultures.  Supposedly things are happening on Earth, but there are no characters or events on Earth, just meaningless statements like, "Long life, power, and wealth became the same thing."

       God, but this is awful stuff.

What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com
Copyright 1998 Aaron Hughes

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