6 July 2018

Review - Adrift by Rob Boffard

Cover design by Charlotte Stroomer
Rob Boffard
Orbit, 7 June 2018
PB, 371pp
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

While meticulous in its space opera setting - the remote space station, the wormhole "gate", fusion reactors and inertial dampers - this is at hear a very old fashioned survival story, which reminded me of books by authors like Alastair Maclean. Following a surprise attack which destroys Sigma Station, newbie tour guide Hannah, who's on her very first shift, finds herself alone in a beat-up shuttle, the sole crew apart from drunken pilot Volkova and in charge of a vocal and ill assorted group of passengers.

Classic disaster movie material they are - the restaurant critic running from a broken relationship, the honeymoon couple, a high-ranking politician, her husband and sons, a widow who's sold up the business she and her husband built up and gone - literally - to see the stars. None of them are particularly helpful in an emergency, but they all have strong opinions ("I'm gonna sue... I'm here on business, and your company just ignored all safety precautions.") In the face of such an overwhelming crisis, can Hannah hold herself together, overcome self-doubt and inexperience, and survive?

It's a riveting read, barely pausing as one catastrophe flows into the next. The Red Panda was never designed to do much more than paddle round the outside of Sigma Station, allowing tourists to gawp and the might leisure-couplex-cum-mining-colony. But, as it turns out, the ship doesn't even have a minimum of emergency provisions. Low on food, water and medical supplies, beset by internal arguments and menaced by a mysterious attack ship, survival seems a remote possibility.

I enjoyed the way that Boffard animates the story, giving all the passengers and crew distinct characters - there's a real danger with this kind of thing that the reader won't be able to tell who is who, or remember why they should care, but in Adrift you surely will very quickly learn who's who (and what's what).

The political background - which is relevant to the story and setting - is also convincingly portrayed. It's fifteen years since the war between the Colonies and the Frontier (i.e. Earth) ended with a treaty that's only been grudgingly accepted. All the characters look back to that history and the older ones have direct experience - whether fighting, reporting, taking part in the negotiations that ended the conflict or losing someone they loved. I sensed the tension and pain of that in much of the bickering aboard Red Panda, as well as in the heroics that are needed to address the crisis.

In the end it is, perhaps, a very personal story in which the protagonists - especially Hannah (who is, after all, wearing the "red shirt of command") and Jack, the cynical (and, frankly, rather unlikeable) journalist - need to come to terms with who they are and with who they want to be. (That might also be said for another character but I won't mention their name as it would be a spoiler).

This, too, reminded me of survival stories like South by Java Head or River of Death. In the end it's all about character, determination and pushing through.

All in all, a great, entertaining read filled with twists and moments of real dread. Recommended.

For more about the book, see Rob Boffard's website here or the Orbit site here.

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