Surmounting the Void: Reviewing “Hollow Space: Venture”


Long time science-fiction warriors C.F. Barnes and T.F. Grant, graduates of the London School of Journalism and Open University, debut their latest series (“Xantoverse”) with a bang: hitting all the high-water marks with gusto, Hollow Space: Venture reminds readers that even during a time of mass-market clones, of vapid copy-cat stories shamelessly raking in on a pop culture fad, there are still proponents of the craft for whom writing is as personal as breathing; with engaging characters more than the sum of their cardboard cutout parallels, and a morally and politically thrilling plot concerning self-determination and labor, this array a soft[1] sci-fi installations mix fantasy and science into one delicious cocktail of neophyte fiction.

The story is one of war. The people of the Crown Republic have been locked in conflict with the alien Markesians for many years. During the course of the altercation billions have died, reducing the human race to a mere gaggle of survivors scratching-by in colony ships. Destined to settle new planets and repopulate the human race, the colony ships represent humanity’s last hope; and yet, the last of these ships, the Venture, navigated by protagonist Sara Lorelle, is ambushed by a Markesian fleet.

Taking heavy damage and forced to make a retreat, Sara initiates a blind warp jump, desperate to escape her attackers. However, an anomaly happens. Instead of jumping out at a random point in the system the Venture is brought to a mysterious region of existence called “hollow space” by its denizens; short circuiting all of the Venture’s electronics, forcing them into an even more deplorable condition, Sara and her crew are coerced into accepting the aid of Tairon Chauder, the son of the infamous Miriam Chauder, and a major crime syndicate leader: one of the ruling bodies which control the space station known as Haven, a mysterious relics left behind by an extinct species of aliens called Xantonians.

Once they are on Haven, however, they are thrust into a lethal world of deal and trades. Discovering that the lifeblood of Haven is one of transaction, of commodity exchange, labor and thievery, Sara is forced to make a deal with Miriam so as to protect the remnants of the Venture from scavengers, and have a bit of capital on which to make her and her crew’s way abroad Haven. The catch, of course, is that nothing is free on Haven: the resources needed to retake the Venture—the fuel for the tugboats, manpower, and weaponry if other factions move in to try and claim the Venture—incur a ballooning debt.

And so the race is on to find means to wipe the debt clean, find occupations, and somehow make a living in a cold, calculating world, while trying to (someday) find a way back home.

Hollow Space: Venture, aside from being a highly enjoyable read, is also something more: it is a hot injection of openly progressive politics to space opera. Although sci-fi in general always was more receptive of left-wing thinking, whether it was reformist or revolutionary, then other genres of writing, since the emergence of Ursula K. Le Guin decades ago, there have been few candidates which display an intellectual engagement with emancipatory politics. C.F. Barnes and T.F Grant, however, eschew conservatism and liberalism, opting instead for a critique of postmodernity.

Venture could easily be described as silly or nonsensical. After all, between the multitudes of alien races essentially the sci-fi equivalents of hornets, feathered monkeys, zombies, werewolves, and mind-devouring dragons, all situated within a space station which should not exist, there comes a point where the reader needs to acknowledge the seemingly juvenile nature of the text. Any review or discussion though which takes issue with this content is missing the point, however: when fleeing from Jhang, the mind-eating space-dragon, the characters themselves speak to the absurdity of the situation best—“’is that really a dragon throwing pieces of oversized werewolves at us within a space station lair?’ [Dylan] asked. ‘Yeah, Dylan, problem?’ [Tairon responded] ‘What? No, it’s perfectly reasonable. It’s silly of me to question it’” (272). Perception here is key: Tairon’s crew, along with the majority of Havenites, know nothing of life outside Hollow Space. Sara and company, meanwhile, have seen more of the universe than anyone on Haven, while Haven itself has become immunized to their own dysfunction. Dylan’s remark exemplifies this dichotomy through forcing the self-referential artifacts of the authors to surface; his sarcastic response is an authorial sleight of hand that the supposed nonsensical or silly aspects, presumed to be accidental or an uncared for importation, are in reality intended actualities, something written in order to allude to the fact that Haven and Hollow Space function as allegories for postmodernism: an intellectual and cultural current which epitomized diversity above all else, even at the expense of coherency (as seen in Derrida’s deconstruction), an aspect realized in stunning poignancy through the melting-pot nature of Haven’s population and their blatant disregard for both long-term projects and desire at emancipating themselves from the prison that is Hollow Space.

Such an accusation seems, at first, far-fetched. How much philosophical meat does any author truly intend, after all? In the case of Venture’s authors, however, the answer would be “quite a bit” as soon as the reader glimpses the following passage concerning Dylan’s thoughts on the usage of books and that place in hell which awaits anyone who reads a book but a single time; such a person’s place “was… where philosophers were forced to actually look at reality rather than just play word games to make themselves seem clever” (192). So a collision is seen. On one hand we have interpreted a Derridian mode of absurdity within the lack of coherency in Haven, while on the other hand we see Dylan’s fusion of casual readers with a philosophic disdain of what Jacque Derrida theorized as ‘Deconstruction’, which many in Structuralist circles sarcastically dubbed as ‘language games’ (originally populzrized by postmodernist pope Jean-Francis Lyotard, who in turn snatched it from Ludwig Wittgenstein). Hence, Dylan is represented as a kind of allegorical manifestation of structuralism and modernism, albeit one which is enmeshed in what Mao Tsetung would call “Book worship”, or the uncritical prizing of literature; a trend only eradicated upon his enslavement to the Drifts when he realized the stale, stock nature of many of the books he had collected over the years were not worth reading, yet alone promoting; during this same period Dylan alone is able to conceive of the reality of Haven—although Sara understands the corrupt, violent aspect, she does not yet understand the ‘life-world’ of Haven (to borrow a term from Edmund Husserl) is, as Dylan remarks, filled with “ragamuffins, pirates, capitalists red in tooth and claw,” whom wish to make “the crew of the Venture… simply lunch” (192). Though Sara eventually ascends to Dylan’s level of class consciousness upon her attempt to demystify station-life as “crazy, anarchic, toxic…” and effort to sway Tairon that “if you knew what was out there beyond the gate, you’d realize how [fucked] up things are here” (353), the fact remains that it is Dylan—the originally reactionary, literary obsessed reader, perhaps indicative of sci-fi audiences—who first reaches the critical conclusion vis-a-vie his engagement with the truth of the station, a revelation itself born through the text’s philosophical signifiers. A conclusion impossible to those stuck within Hollow Space’s infinitely proliferating signs.

Unsurprisingly, emancipation comes through labor, but of an honest variety independent of what Karl Max disdainfully called “lumpen-proletarian” activities (theft, murder, con artists, etc.); the crew of the Venture signs on to retrieve artifacts from ‘the Old Station’, an orbital installation larger and older than Haven. With the outcome signifying a new lease on life and the materiality needed to mount an additional enterprise to expand Haven’s understanding of Hollow Space, hopefully dispelling the postmodern fog, the outcome of the mission becomes a direct outcome of the forces of modernity triumphing over postmodern reaction.

In conclusion, and to appropriate a phrase once used by George R.R. Martin to describe Walter Jon William’s Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, I simply wish to remark that Hollow Space is ‘Space Opera as it was meant to be’—fast paced, exciting, and dynamic with always a new thought-provoking development around the corner. Created with skill and passion, I can easily recommend to any science-fiction fan that they should pick up a copy. After all, it would be downright aberrant of me to say anything less, since I will likely be reading this series for (hopefully) many years to come[2].

Hollow Space: Venture—A Space Opera Adventure (Xantoverse Book 1)

C.F. Barnes & T.F. Grant

477 pages. Published by Anachron Press & CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. $4.99 (Kindle), $18.99 (Print). 2014.


[1] Here the term “soft” sci-fi refers to the division within science fiction between those authors who let their imagination abound with non-scientific principals to explain the technology and events in their works (an example of which would be faster-than-light travel), and those of another preference, the “hard” sci-fi writers whom attempt to provide a realistic basis for the technology of their text (an example of which would be maintaining the reality of space travel as, even within a science-fiction setting, at below the speed of light, or maintaining realistic physics and mathematical schema when describing interstellar military confrontations between armed vessels).

[2] Unfortunately, it seems that this will not be the case. Originally, at the time of writing this review, I was unaware that one of the authors to the eventual series had passed away; with it, the surviving co-author seems to have lost the desire to write, now that their long time had passed away. I mourn for the premature death of not only a talented writer but a promising series.

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