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Outpost, Scott Mackay, TOR, 1998, 349 pp.

Seldom have I been so misled by a cover blurb. On the back of my copy of Outpost, we find a quotation attributed to the Washington Post: "A fast-paced action adventure." Generally speaking, I'm the most cynical person around when it comes to hype and the species of hype known as a blurb. However, I didn't know much about the book before picking it up, and Outpost is Mackay's debut science fiction novel (he has written two other books). So I started in on Outpost thinking that I would indeed be enjoying a fast-paced action adventure. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this is in no way intended as a criticism of this excellent novel. Outpost is atmospheric, character-centred, and almost unclassifiable in its use of science fiction elements. Perhaps Kafka with a touch of time travel? Borges, but with Italian influences instead of Spanish? As is clear from these two writers that came to my mind, neither of whom were noted for writing fast-paced action adventures, I think that Mackay is a fabulous writer, but slightly mislabelled.

The story begins with a common enough contrivance, that of the main character with amnesia. The opening lines of the novel go like this: "Seventeen years old, and she couldn't remember murdering anyone, couldn't remember a trial or sentencing, or who, exactly, she had killed" (11). Felicitas is the main character of Outpost, and she is trapped in a prison with a group of humans on an alien world. The prison itself is in bad repair, but the aliens who set it up many years ago have a number of devices that keep the prisoners under control. Those who have fought their way out of the haze of drugs and controlled dreams are understandably anxious to escape, although they have no clue as to what might be on the other side of the massive walls (and I think it's becoming clear why I was reminded of Kafka and Borges). Felicitas becomes friends with Piero, who is the mastermind of the upcoming escape attempt, and she falls in love with Rosario, who is Piero's faithful assistant. Life in the alien prison is depicted in grinding, near-slavish detail, and the first 50-100 pages of Outpost get a little difficult to get through. Once the mood has been set, the book grabs a hold of you, and soon enough, Felicitas has escaped with a few others. All of the dramatic payoffs past that point are well-written and often surprising. There is a subplot about family, and Felicitas also discovers what her strange visions might mean.

Mackay writes excellent characterization, if a bit grim, in the way that Banks' characters could be bleak (I'm thinking of Use of Weapons but quite a bit less extreme). Felicitas is not a heroine in the typical sense of the word, but perhaps something more interesting, a normal woman who triumphs in extraordinary circumstances. Mackay balances the elements of story with care, so that Felicitas' love for Rosario is believable yet not the main issue in the novel. The villain of the piece, Maritano, is also in love with Felicitas -- at least that's the way that Maritano rationalizes his psychopathic behaviour to himself. He is under the control of some ancient mental machinery left behind by the aliens, but he still retains a jealous edge with regard to Felicitas. Maritano has all the rationalizations: "'You'll thank me for this, Felicitas'" (136), he says as he is about to destroy her independence.

Outpost is written from quite the unique angle. The narrative is consistently written from the viewpoint of the meek and the powerless, the downtrodden who are fighting heavy repression. The book has an extensive backstory, which does get slowly revealed (mainly through Felicitas' visions and some of the later plot developments), but this backstory, with a tinge of the high-level space opera antics that sometimes distinguishes science fiction, mostly takes place offstage or in the past. Outpost's camera lens is at ground level looking up at massive structures and vast injustices. With this fascinating trait in my mind, I found some of the main twists of the book to be Eurocentric and less than compelling. Outpost traces a galaxy worth of injustice back to a figure central to European history -- Mackay might be exorcising the malevolent influence of Machiavelli on human history (of what we know so far, and of Mackay's speculations of the future of that history), but making Machiavelli so central is also a troubling presumption.

Outpost is a time travel story, but I won't say much about those elements of the book, as they happen near the end. Mackay does use some clichés, certain paradoxes that have been extensively explored in other time travel stories. This book is distinct in its gritty texture and main character, as I have discussed. Mackay writes to the strengths of his style, and while his book may be the antithesis of an action-adventure, it stands quite well on its own considerable merits.

Last modified: February 24, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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