SubOrbital7 (John Shirley) – Book Review

Established writer John Shirley, he of The Crow screenplay renown, has appeared in time for the long days of summer where an easily readable tome should be within reach at all times, bringing forth SubOrbital7, his latest sci-fi action work from Titan Books.

SubOrbital7 is a high-concept sci-fi yarn that takes place at an indeterminate date in the latter half of the twenty-first century, and deals with US Ranger Art Burkett (your factory-standard competent hero with a rocky home life), who is assigned to rescue a trio of kidnapped scientists by being dropped in from orbit. Once the mission is complete, the squad returns to the eponymous spaceship, only to find an escalating series of perils jeopardising their mission, their lives, and even their country.

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Unfortunately, while SubOrbital7 has its draws, it has its fair number of criticisms too. One of the biggest drawbacks to SubOrbital7 is its cookie-cutter nature, its imitativeness, reading at any moment like a forgotten lesser Dan Brown work mixed with chunks of Chris Ryan’s black-ops soldier shenanigans, and even the Guy Pearce movie Lockout (Pearce stars as a wrongly imprisoned good guy who must rescue Maggie Grace’s daughter-of-the-President from space prison Snake Plissken-style).

It even seems like an unfortunate cousin to James Rollins’ most popular series SIGMA, a series of summer-blockbuster novels in which a troop of mostly-genius Special Forces troopers deal with international conflicts that often involve high-concept sci-fi, heaps of action, and even (sometimes) concepts such as parallel universes, animal intelligence, and supernatural abilities. It’s a shame therefore, that Shirley neither leans into the high-concept premise more, or spends time in this world he crafts beyond scientific concepts, vague global superpowers and bikini baristas.

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The writing in SubOrbital7 itself is fine enough, even though the characters are mere templates, and attempts at fleshing them out feel half-baked at best; most of the troop get a very brief insight into their lives, but Burkett is the only one to get anything remotely resembling an arc or development, which is a shame given how many characters Shirley is intent on filling the story with.

Tantalising hints at characters are left in the (space) dust, and secondary characters (both on Earth and in the atmosphere) are dropped without explanation, to the point a pivotal character in the first third of the book vanishes from the story without any real explanation. There’s even a moment where another ranger simultaneously flirts and debates with her squadmate about their incompatibility faith-wise (which given that this takes place squarely in the future would have been a great way to discuss faith and religion in a different book), but none of which is ever resolved or paid off.

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Shirley really shines best when dealing with a set-piece, whether that’s the genuinely thrilling rescue mission that dominates the first Earth-set act of the book, or a tense standoff that occurs later on the spaceship, complete with a rising body count to match the ratcheting suspense. These sequences are easily the novel’s highlights, and a version of the novel with fewer characters, more depth, and more well-choreographed action beats would have been well-received.

Dealing with paper-thin characterisation and a slightly lumbering plot, SubOrbital7 is nevertheless buoyed by enjoyable bursts of action, an intriguing premise, and a pleasing sense of rising tension that helps it clear the atmosphere. It’s far from a classic of the genre by any means, but it’s certainly an enjoyable, breezy summer read that will drift by as easily as a cloud on a hot day.

SubOrbital7 is out now from Titan Books.

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