Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Geoff Nelder
21 November 2022, ISBN: 978-0-9975549-5-3, 201 pages
You don’t need to read Geoff Nelder’s bio to know that he is inherently a scientist and a teacher. His books are engaging and inventive to be sure, but they are underpinned by a deep understanding of and delight in the wonders of physics and biology. His worlds are full of anomalies that draw on real-life quantum quirks, cosmic paradoxes and biological anomalies, and his aliens are both delightfully bizarre and yet somehow plausible. He is a writer who knows his sci-fi tropes well enough to twist them into a Möbius strip and take them to new places while still providing plenty of easter eggs to keen readers of the genre.
Kepler’s Son, the third book in his Flying Crooked series, is no exception. In previous books in the series, humans have left the Earth and crash-landed on a planet called Kepler-20h where the aliens are so technologically advanced to humans, that they just ignore the visitors. Humans aren’t colonisers here, as is often the case in sci fi books, but minor vermin barely worthy of note. It is only the awkward human personality, human bacterial issues, and the ship-steering, all seeing, god-like artificial intelligence CAN that makes the humans noteworthy to the Keps – the ultra advanced aliens who live on Kepler-20. CAN shines in this work as a hilarious non-human character with its camp dairy style missives that play on its name (“Can Can”, “cannibalised”, “cantering”, “Wiccan” “the oilcan”, etc). CAN is a significant character, whose distinctive voice is somewhere between the existential musings of The Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy’s Marvin (though happier) and the careful diction of a geeky science teacher:
Each orbiting object, missing its main gravitational attractive mass, has many variables acting upon it. Rather like a raindrop in the troposphere, which has 201 variables acting on and in it, such as: gravity, partial va-pour pressure, phase… mass, velocity, condensation nuclei… diameter, temperature, Van der Waal forces… microgravitational pulls from nearest neighbour droplets. Granted that the former satellites of Kepler-20h are not in an atmosphere, their motion is still influenced by more than the sun’s gravity, which while only 0.0006 of the planet’s pull, is now the most important factor.
The other protagonists of the series are Em and the charmingly French Gaston. In book two, Em falls pregnant to Gaston at the same time as she is impregnated by a Kep, thereby creating a hybrid child, Adeh. Adeh is 18 when Kepler’s Son, an obvious reference to Adeh, opens. His interesting mix of human and alien genes are on full display throughout the book as he develops while exploring the world he and his parents live on, and learning the limits of his capabilities and his relationship to other creatures, imaginary or real.
Nelder does a good job of keeping the story fast-paced and action-oriented as the humans and their collaborators are hunted down by ‘purist’ Keps who would like to exterminate them. While the story hints at human history and our many foibles including the wrecking of our planet through anthropogenic climate change, the way in which the narrative progresses is novel, involving a galactic chase that includes ‘pinching’ – a folding of space time that simulates a kind of wormhole. There are all sorts of dangers for the couple as they fly a variety of crafts, and also fun hiding spaces like the a base inside a sun’s corona or an impossible tower built of ‘non-Euclidean, non-Newtonian, non-Einstein geo-physics’. Nelder manages just the right blend of scientific description and imaginative ideation.The characterisation remains strong through the book as he moves in and out of different viewpoints, even giving voice to some of the stranger characters, like the genetically-engineered Keeps – part Kep, part human, but more collective than individual and only able to communicate in sing-song grunts:
Cold. No, worse. Cells solidifying.
Huddle to retain heat.
We said that.
Need to find heat source.
We said that.
While Kepler’s Son does provide context and background to the previous books, both in the intro and at key points through the narrative, a better reading experience is to be had by reading all three books in the series (and ultimately the fourth when it comes out) in sequence as it does take a bit of catching up to understand Nelder’s extensive universe with its biological and mechanical creatures, particularly Gaston’s Papillon who feels quite important but doesn’t feature strongly in Kepler’s Son. That said, Kepler’s Son is self-contained enough to provide a a joyride that won’t disappoint readers who enjoy high quality sci-fi. This is a well-crafted book with a dynamic and engaging pace that has something for everyone, including multiple close calls, close and steamy encounters, clones, cold fusion, dreamlike landscapes and far flung star systems.