“Outpassage” is a fine example of thoughtful, adventurous science fiction. For those of you who know Janet Morris from “Thieves World” or the “Beyond” trilogy, this book will reveal an exciting new facet of one of your favorite authors. “Outpassage” isn’t written with the same lyrical, bard-like prose she uses when detailing the exploits of Tempus Thales, but such a choice wouldn’t be appropriate with a space epic. In “Outpassage” the sentences are sharp and direct, and bring life to a futuristic setting without losing any of the craftsmanship she has displayed in her previous work. Essentially she has simply updated her palate; instead of the greens and browns of Sanctuary, “Outpassage” allows her to work with the silver and black of space.
The story of “Outpassage” is instantly gripping as well. A corporation is mining/settling a planet only to discover alien life on the surface. Rather than view this development as the scientific discovery of the age, the corporation becomes concerned with the bottom line and decides to “eliminate” the alien problem. We are introduced to Daniel “Det” Cox, one of the rangers who is sent to the slaughter in a battle against a force he truly knows nothing about.
The alien “problem” has been developing for some time as Det is sent back to Earth for psych evaluation. On a whim, he signs up for a dating service, and gets set up with a high-ranking executive of the very corporation embarking on the plan of alien genocide. In a semi-comical twist, the two of them are shanghaied during their date, drugged, and sent to a different planet which is also displaying signs of the same alien problem. Det is commandeered because of his experience fighting the aliens, where the corporate official, Paige, is put to work in what is essentially a slave camp.
I found many of the space/future touches of this work to be delightful. Det is an interesting character because he’s so adaptive. Finding that he’s been drugged and shanghaied to a foreign planet, his big concern is that he didn’t black out any briefings because he doesn’t want to look incompetent in front of the men he’s set to lead.
Paige is interesting too. There is a tendency in literature to portray “corporate” folks as incompetent to adapt to a labor setting. Paige’s introduction to her new reality is rocky, but she quickly learns to climb the social ladder among the laborers to achieve the highest status available to her. She expresses moments of vulnerability which make her appealing, though she’s always got her eye on her long term goals and makes steady progress.
The scenario becomes more complicated as the laborers begin to develop a complex religion that worships the alien life form, and seems to bequeath the followers with the power to resurrect themselves from death. However, you have to wonder how much of the beings that come back are the original human, and how much of them are alien.
All in all, “Outpassage” has all the elements of a great science fiction novel. The space components (space travel, warfare on foreign planets, aliens, etc.) are present and expertly integrated into the plot. The writing is exemplary, and the novel moves along at a quick pace leaving you wanting more. This is a fantastic contribution by one of the best fantasy/sci-fi writers working today.