Calamity at Cattori V is somewhat a “reluctant superhero” story. The protagonist (Tommy) is a 20-year old “native” (i.e. non-convict) member of a penal colony on Cattori V. Tommy is described as not particularly intimidating (i.e. possessing a “dad bod”) but has been granted the Gift of healing by aliens to serve as their ambassador (not quite clear as to what). By the way, although the book is not labeled as a “part 1”, it reads like a “part 1”, ending rather abruptly with an unexpected twist.
The story is reminiscent of Marvel superhero stories. The pace is fast, there are numerous combat/hand-to-hand scenes, and there is a strong sense of good-guys versus bad-guys. The downside of the Marvel-superhero feel is that character development and a strong story arc seems to have taken a back seat to martial action and battle scenes (particularly in the final chapters). There is also a strong dystopian flavor to the story. All this being said, Marvel fans will likely enjoy this story as well.
Disclaimer: I received a free digital ARC for this novel. However, both the decision to post a review and the contents of the review are voluntary and my own alone.
The overall story line (spoiler alert for this paragraph) begins with Tommy being granted the “superpower” of healing by the alien “Atlantans”. Tommy is an upper middle-class Cattori V citizen whose job is establishing new convicts into society. His “superpowers” throw him more and more into a Marvel-like superhero lifestyle with the goal “To protect people”. As the story progresses, Cattori V is invaded by the Lhoorlians and the inhabitants are abruptly jerked from a well-defined lifestyle to the immediate need to evacuate. Similarly, Tommy’s lifestyle changes abruptly from a straightforward middle-class well-defined role to that of a superhero trying to evacuate the last members of his species before the Lhoorlians invade. As I mentioned earlier, the story ends with an unexpected twist.
The antagonists in the story are the Lhoorlians. These are the natives of a star system close to Cattori and the Lhoorlian race is described as being “constantly at war with itself and others”. More specifically, there is an imperial faction centered on emperor, a democratic faction proposing a lottery based rulership (demarchy) and an anarchist faction not supporting much of anything except violence.
There were several things I liked about the story:
The setting for the story is intriguing. Cattori V is described as a penal planet, a setting immediately reminiscent of the late 1700s in Australia. The premise is that lengthy non-relativistic travel scared off more conventional settlers, leaving the planet to be terraformed by convict labor. Similar to the situation in Sydney in the late 1700s, the government strongly controls the society, using a combination of cultural/legal constructs (Scoldings and Warnings) as well as threat of banishment to rumored high security prisons or illicit experimental facilities. Immediate parallels can be made to Australia, for example, the threat of banishment to the mines of Newcastle or Norfolk Island.
Gender-diverse content. The story contains several gender-diverse characters and situations. Orchid Spira is perhaps the most colorful. Orchid uses “on/onis” pronouns (he/she/on), and was born on Lhoorl, but is not Lhoorlian. Orchid is a martial arts expert and becomes the martial arts trainer for Tommy. The story also explores a relationship between Lion (male) and Tommy (male) which develops as the conflict with the Lhoorilian’s becomes more extensive.
However, I struggled with some aspects of the story as well
Unclear story arc: Even after reading the story twice (and writing a review) I have trouble describing the story in a clear way. Yes, it has elements of “The last helicopter out of Vietnam”– except the helicopter never takes off. Yes, it is very much a superhero story – except it doesn’t conclude with the superhero winning, or getting the girl (or the boy), or public recognition, or whatever. The story just ... well … stops.
World-building: While the idea of a penal colony on a distant planet works – the Australia example being the 1700s equivalent, there were some weaknesses in the world building. While this does not significantly detract from the story as a thriller, it pushes the story further away from science-fiction. As one representative example, Tommy is described of being one of 37 people born on the planet. Average global birth rate is about 18/1000 population per year. So, a grand total of 37 people born on the planet suggests either a minuscule population (or an appalling lack of fertility). Clearly, the population is not minuscule, or there would be no way to sustain the type of city and social functions that are described in the story. However, if you assume that the population is quite a bit larger (50,000 perhaps based on the 50/flight number specified for arriving convicts), then the evacuation numbers at the end don’t work out, as too few ships are specified. There are other examples of this similar issues by the way, but this one stuck in my mind.
Language: I may be an old fart here, but a story whose first sentence contains “ it came from the f- stars” set me back quite a bit. Yes, I realize that the f-word is becoming ever more a part of the language, but I was STILL very surprised to see it used so extensively in such a gender-diverse book. First, the f-word is not a gender-neutral curse word. Second, I was somewhat jolted by the overall lack of creativity of the cursing (particularly in a book set on an alien planet). Cursing that consists of repeatedly using only one or two words (as portrayed in this book) would seem to reflect a startling lack of originality.