Pat Murphy,
There & Back Again:
by Max Merriwell

(Tor, 1999)

Pat Murphy combines several speculative fiction traditions into There & Back Again: by Max Merriwell, a space opera which is also a loving tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and gives more than a nod to Lewis Carroll.

Bailey Belden is a norbit, an individual content to live in a cozy cylinder drilled into an asteroid in the asteroid belt just outside the planet Mars. Like other norbits, he gets about in a steam-powered rocket ship -- they don't go too far, but then, they don't have to, either. Norbits like to stay close to home; they don't need to go adventuring.

One day, as Bailey is returning home, he spots a disabled message pod. He picks it up and notifies the intended recipient, the well-known and powerful Farr Family, which consists mostly of clones of the founding member, Myra Farr. After he lets them know that he has it, he puts it away in his storeroom and promptly forgets about it.

Years later, a ship hails him; it is the legendary explorer and adventurer, Gitana, on her ship. Jabberwock. She has come about the message pod, so Bailey invites her to lunch. She accepts, informing him that members of the Farr family, all deep-space explorers, will be joining them as well. When they arrive, they all turn out to be from the same generation of clones except for Zahara, their captain.

The message cube reveals a holographic map showing wormhole across part of the galaxy, and before Bailey knows what has happened, he's been bundled on board one of the ships to help follow those seeking the ultimate "Snark," an artifact of a vanished civilization. He is not entirely happy with the decision, which was more that of the Farr sibs than his own, yet at the same time, he's fascinated by his new experience.

Still, a run-in with a Resurrectionist ship takes the edge off the fun for him, particularly since Resurrectionists are in the business of harvesting human brains and nervous systems from their captives and incorporating the pieces into their own hideous cyborg constructs. Bailey meets one such creation, aptly called Rattler, escaping only after beating it at a game of riddles. It is here, though, that he picks up his own curious artifact that allows him to move unseen among others and hijack a sapient fighter ship named Fluffy.

After the Resurrectionists come pirates, giant spiders and a dragon-like creature called the Boojum, and by the time they reach their goal he's had enough of the sibs and their plans. He's fed up with adventure; all he wants is to go home. In the end, however, he can't turn his back on the final confrontation.

This is a whimsical and wonderful adventure which reflects The Hobbit rather than slavishly imitates it. Brief quotes from Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark" complement the chapters. Murphy also deftly inserts scientific explanations into the narrative without breaking its flow, and her character development is steady and sure. Bailey is an easy character to like, and readers will be rooting for him every step of the way.

There is plenty of humor and drama in this lively space opera, leading to a conclusion that is clever and satisfying.

Supposedly a novel written by Max Merriwell that "leaked" into our reality from an alternate universe, Pat Murphy's There & Back Again is sure to delight any reader possessing senses of humor and wonder.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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