First of all, understand that WILDCATTER is the kind of book where characters actually say things like, “Stuff it! I thrive on adrenaline with a side order of testosterone.” Which is silly, yet also the kind of weird fun you, or at least I, might want from a short, efficient novel about space explorers.
But WILDCATTER feels like two different books. One of them is about space-bound entrepreneurs scouting out a far-off world that’s been marked with a mysterious warning beacon, and the physical and economic dangers that come with a small business going up against the big guys.
The other is about sex and gender, because there are six people trapped on a space ship for a very long time. There is absolutely room in this story for both of these threads, but they end up feeling disconnected because, frankly, one of them is much better handled than the other.
The Golden Hind is an exploratory ship sent out by a very small company (the owner is aboard) to look for whatever strange resources can be found on far-off planets that haven’t yet been scouted and claimed by much larger corporations. They find a world that seems ripe with possibilities, name it Cacafuego, cavort with some choice booze and sex, and then discover that a huge company has already been there, and marked the planet not with a claim marker, but with a quarantine warning.
It’s a good setup, and one that jumps into an intriguing, and ultimately satisfying, sci-fi mystery pretty much immediately. There is much deliberation, theorizing and playing of power games before we’re treated to the exploration of a strange and fascinating world. It’s like a really neat episode of STAR TREK, if STAR TREK were about a ruthless small business. (So … not a lot like STAR TREK.)
Much of the enjoyment comes from seeing what exactly is up with that weird planet, and why the bigger company turned around, so all I’ll say is that the solutions to these various mysteries are all refreshingly believable. Nothing gets turned on its head just for a shock, but none of it is obvious either.
That’s only, however, half of what’s in these pages. The other half explores how six people — two women, two men, and two herms (folks that switch between male and female every few months or so) — with carte blanche to fuck without professional repercussions, navigate being crammed in a small ship together.
These are interesting circumstances, especially given the herm angle, but a lot of the more challenging implications get drowned out by assumptions and oversights, not the least of these being that the introduction of a third gender doesn’t end up really getting at anything interesting. In fact, the herms act so differently when they’re one gender or another that it ends up a surprisingly heteronormative gender-bender. And honestly, where’s the fun in that?
But the most egregious misstep here is an old chestnut in all genres of literature: Our hero, Seth, is absolutely irresistable to anyone with a vagina, including those who only have one half of the time. It’s not that he’s just a good option in limiting circumstances; instead, he seems to be just about everybody’s fantasy (and the people on the ship aren’t everybody …) for no reason that I can see.
The character’s fun at times, but nothing that makes the sexual availability of those around him, even when completely out of character, feel like anything other than a shortcut to showing us how totally cool and awesome he is. He is also sometimes just told to his face that he’s cool and awesome and perfect and smart and good at everything.
Of course, just when I’d be fed up with this stuff, some more sci-fi goodness would come my way and I’d forget it about it for awhile. WILDCATTER would have been a really great short story, but as a novel, some parts are simply better thought-out than others. —Elijah Kinch Spector