It's not often that one comes in contact with a truly literary-style piece of science fiction with superheroes, trench coat aliens, and underground floating cities, let alone a literary-style piece of science fiction that works. Slattery's Spaceman Blues is a stunning, if not astonishing piece of fiction; the kind of book you want to read over and over, because each time you do you'll find something new that you missed before; the kind of book that reigns in the pulpy goodness of the Golden Age of science fiction and comics with a style that will draw in readers of Thomas Pynchon and E. L. Doctorow (in my opinion and based upon a limited exposure to those writers).
With a diverse cast, each with their own stories and connections, Spaceman Blues is a rather unusual and exciting read. Every sentence seems packed with important information and Slattery's style manages to wander into the lives of his unique characters while still pushing the story forward; that wandering rarely harms the overall integrity of the story. For such a short novel, Spaceman Blues does so much: it takes our main character from being just a man to a superhero, digs into the lives of a multitude of characters, each with unique back stories and personalities, and gives respect to the pulp literatures of the last century by taking them to a new level while still engaging with their "classic" nature.
Readers of Spaceman Blues may see interesting mythological parallels, too. The plot itself feels like an allusion to the story of Orpheus, with Wendell descending into an underground world in search of his lover in much the same way as Orpheus had. There are interesting parallels to Biblical figures too, particularly the four horseman. These elements add to the depth of the work, giving it the sort of multi layered narrative not often found within inherently "popular" forms of literature, particularly because the way this work is written intentionally draws one to the language, to the writing itself and what Slattery is actually saying rather than what the basic points of the plot are.
Spaceman Blues is not without flaws, though. While I enjoyed the ending of Slattery's 219-page novel, I expect some readers will dislike the lack of a significant conclusion, and perhaps may find the pessimistic view at the end to be too literary, or unsatisfying (or depressing?). To add, Slattery's style is not an entirely approachable one in the sense that it is not written like the novels that embrace the "popular literature" style. He writes with a certain fluidity, if that is the proper term to use here, with sentences that would generally be considered run-ons, but work precisely because of the type of book Slattery was writing; occasionally his style works against him when he wanders too far in the narrative. If you want to read this book, go into it understanding that it is written in a long, literary style, rather than the style you might be more familiar with.
Despite its flaws, Spaceman Blues is a fast-paced (and short) read. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different, because this work is certainly different, if not unique--a character story more than a plot story. It's also an example of why Tor is one of the pioneers of science fiction publishing: Slattery has an interesting vision that I'm glad to see get the attention it deserves. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to read more of Slattery's work in the future, because if Spaceman Blues is anything to go by, I expect he'll have a long career ahead of him.
Go check it out!
(This review originally appeared on Fantasy/Sci-fi Lovin' Reviews. You can see the original version here.)