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Take Back Plenty
Colin Greenland
HarperCollins, 528 pages

Take Back Plenty
Colin Greenland
Colin Greenland was born in Dover, Kent in 1954. His first novel, Daybreak on a Different Mountain was published by Allen & Unwin in 1984. He has written for the New Statesman, The Face and The Sunday Times. He spent 2 years as the Arts Council Writer in Residence at the Science Fiction Foundation. Take Back Plenty (1990), his 4th novel, began the series about Captain Tabitha Jute. It is the only novel to win all three British SF awards: the Eastercon, the British SF Association, and the Arthur C. Clarke. That was followed in 1995 by a sequel, Seasons of Plenty, The Plenty Principle, a short story collection and Mother of Plenty (1998). He lives in Cambridge with his partner, the writer and editor Susanna Clarke.

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A review by Martin Lewis

The Plenty of the title is a gigantic space station built by an alien race called the Frasque. The Frasque have long since been forcibly evicted by another race, the Capellans, and their bureaucrats-cum-enforcers, the Eladeldi. The Capellans, with their superior technology, have set themselves up as benevolent hands off dictators of the Solar system.

Tabitha Jute is a blue-collar pilot who has had the good fortune to acquire her own ship, the Alice Liddell. She is also in dire need of cash to pay off fines and get some urgent repairs. In order to do so she takes on a delivery job from a musician she has a fling with called Marco Metz.

Unfortunately for both Tabitha and the reader, Marco turns out to be monstrously irritating. Unremittingly jovial, he starts to smother Tabitha within pages of them meeting and soon the reader would cheerfully reach into the book and strangle him. On top of this he is wheeler-dealer who constantly gets in over his head and drags other people under with him. This means that the simple job of taking him to Plenty rapidly becomes a lot more convoluted.

On Plenty they meet up with the rest of Marco's band (called -- nudge nudge, wink wink -- Contraband) which is made up of male and female twins who are seemingly identical and a Cherub, a type of post-human that resembles a glossy black baby on a flying saucer. Due to Marco's machinations, they are forced to leave Plenty rather hastily and from then on they hardly stop moving.

Like David Brin's Uplift series, this is a modern space opera that harkens back to the old school. It is a high action romp packed with exotic aliens that is not overly concerned with the underlying mechanics of its universe. As John Clute has noted, space operas tend to stick to the set piece and Take Back Plenty is no exception. Virtually every chapter details them getting into or getting out of a sticky situation. For a story confined to this solar system, the Alice and those on board certainly manage to get themselves around a bit.

Take Back Plenty was published to widespread critical acclaim and it went on to win major awards. Looking back, it's hard to see why. It is undoubtedly a good book but the word that springs to mind is fun, not great.

The most impressive aspect of book is probably the realism with which Colin Greenland portrays his heroine. In contrast to the ultra-competent pilots of most space yarns, Tabitha remains reassuringly normal. She gets drunk, passes out and wakes, hung over, in police cells. She sulks and letches shamelessly, whilst all the time dragging around a handbag full of crap.

The relationship between Tabitha and her ship Alice is also especially well-realised. Greenland perfectly captures their unusual and touching relationship and his depiction of Alice as a melange of mother, sister and daughter is a highly memorable evocation of an artificial personality.

In fact, this deft characterisation shows why minor carping about Take Back Plenty's lack of depth is misguided. What we have here is full-blooded entertainment that effortlessly side steps the usual pitfalls of this breed of fiction and you can't say fairer than that.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.

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