(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres of literature which are, in many respects, one and the same. At least, they are capable of playing off each other. A sci-fi novel can be a massive space opera, but also use magic, an element of fantasy. Likewise, a fantasy novel could have dwarves and trolls battle each-other in submarines, an element of sci-fi. The two can also cross-genre with horror, noire, mystery; the possibilities are endless. Whereas horror or mystery describe the context of a plot device, sci-fi and fantasy describe a setting.
With that, it’s no wonder that since I started attending sci-fi/fantasy literary conventions for writing advice, I’ve come across a healthy share of sci-fi and fantasy novels. As a novice to the genre, the more I read, the more similarities I notice. Don’t get me wrong, it should be expected that stories of these genres share certain elements like use of magic, or faster-than-light travel. But at the point these elements are so similarly used as plot devices from novel-to-novel is when both genres tend to get stale for me. This is why it is innovative for sci-fi and fantasy to cross-genre with horror, romance, or noire in order to spice up a good story. I’m always looking for how a sci-fi or fantasy novel can change the game in terms of telling a story, while appropriately retaining elements which distinguish the genre. If what I’m reading is a run-of-the-mill dungeon crawl or pew-pew space opera, I’m tempted to shelve the book.
Fire With Fire by Charles E. Gannon is exactly the kind of story I am referring to; a sci-fi novel which tells a unique and engaging story, while pushing the boundaries of originality within the genre. Despite being among the longest novels I’ve ever read, its angle on already over-used sci-fi tropes brings a fresh and new experience to well-worn readers.
The story follows an investigative reporter who reanimates from 14 years of cryo-sleep. He is immediately recruited to train as a soldier to investigate shady business on a human-inhabited planet. What he discovers is that intelligent alien life exists on this planet in the form of small, animal-like creatures which inhibit human-like conscience. The reporter then relays his findings to a coalition of Earth’s governments, only to then be made a wanted fugitive for everything he knows. When he is recaptured by the government, he is asked to do the unthinkable: act as Earth’s ambassador in communicating with alien species.
What makes Fire With Fire work is that it takes the typical trope of humans discovering life beyond Earth, approaches it from a diplomatic angle, and makes it interesting as hell. Though it is by all means a space opera, readers shouldn’t expect many pew-pew action scenes and massive space battles. It is a story which examines how humanity and other alien species would act to cooperate and ensure the survival and wellbeing of every race, despite their drastic differences. It’s a high-stakes Cold War in space which, surprisingly, puts readers on edge.
Fire With Fire is not for the faint of heart, however. This novel requires some decent reading experience. Novice readers should be cautious, and certainly read some sci-fi novels before tackling it. The reason being is that it goes into excessive detail with technology, space diplomacy, alien mentality, sovereignty of Earth and space governments; the list goes on. What’s so peculiar about this novel is that it handles space politics so well. Most sci-fi stories which attempt to tackle politics are typically boring or poorly handled. Despite all of its detail, Fire With Fire’s space politics manage to feel fresh and suspenseful, without overhauling commentary of Earth’s historical and modern-day equivalents. The reason it works so well is that the team of human diplomats is chock-full of interesting and lovable characters who have charm. There’s even some playful banter among the team, given their dire circumstances, yet it knows to be serious when it is appropriate. It’s a massive slap in the face to the Star Wars prequels, a trilogy which was crippled by boring space diplomacy and even more stale space diplomats. Here, despite being exceedingly more detailed than that of the Star Wars prequels, Gannon manages to make intergalactic politics work.
Despite containing a slew of space opera tropes, Fire With Fire manages to bring forth a plethora of originality in its more material elements. Certain aspects of technology, though a little wordy at times, feel fresh and new having been present in the genre for so long. The alien species, much like Arrival, aren’t little green men or humanoid; they have very original designs and even more original psyches. Gannon took time to consider how a truly alien species would interpret information, and react in certain situations. It gives the aliens a sense of predictability, but also leaves the reader guessing the more reclusive species next moves.
Despite my praise, I do find FWF to have a few flaws. Firstly, sometimes the novel can be too detailed. There are certain scenes in which I was asking myself "Do I really need this process explained to me?". This is especially evident when characters are in an action scene which is meant to be quick and suspenseful, and Gannon takes time to give an overly detailed explanation of the technology the characters are using. It’s not needed, and kills the momentum of the scene. Also, the third act, though without a doubt the best, needs to be shorter. It could cut fifty pages if it had simply moved the story along a little faster and not been so repetitive and dragged out.
Though it contains a handful of bugs, I was ecstatic of my experience with Fire With Fire. I got to listen to Charles Gannon speak at JordanCon 9 in April of this year, and it was quiet the interesting session. I was skeptical at the length of his books, but I more than breezed through FWF because it is written so well. It makes my panel experience with Gannon all the more cherished. I definitely recommend this novel for experienced sci-fi readers, and I encourage you to explore Gannon’s intricate world. I am more than looking forward to its sequels.
You can purchase Fire With Fire from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017