This duology of the first two books, One Jump Ahead and Slanted Jack, in the popular Jon and Lobo series was released by Baen in a smart marketing move a couple of years ago.
Jon Moore: A nanotech enhanced wanderer who wants nothing more than a quiet life and a way back to his strange home world. Lobo: An incredibly intelligent machine equipped for any environment from the sea to interstellar space. Two battle-scarred veterans unwilling to tolerate injustice. Together in a jam-packed collection that not only includes the two novels, but also two short stories giving some of the backstory to the two protagonists and an interestingly frank foreword and afterword by the author. I read the third book in the series last year, Overthrowing Heaven, and was very impressed – so when I got the opportunity to grab a copy of this duology off the shelves, I took it. Did it live up to my expectations?
This series falls into the adventure/military science fiction sub-genre. Sort of. Because although Jon is an ex-mercenary who offers his services for hire – including his lethally effective battleship – he is also allergic to killing anyone. Indeed, he goes to great lengths to try and avoid using lethal force and if someone does die, Jon treats it as a very big deal. I have to say that I find this approach to the inevitable violence very refreshing and a lot more thought provoking than those shoot-em-ups where bodies are constantly being blown up or ripped apart in a variety of gory ways.
I also very much enjoyed the unfolding relationship between Jon and Lobo. In One Jump Ahead, Jon meets Lobo for the first time and they work together. Jon’s enhancements have forced him to be constantly careful how he interacts with other people, as his greatest fear is finding himself locked up by some large corporation and treated like a labrat as they discover exactly how he came by his unique abilities. One of the consequences of these enhancements is his ability to communicate directly with the machines around him – including, of course, Lobo, his intelligent battleship. Lobo’s constant frustration with Jon’s micro-managing temperament creates a nicely sharp relationship between the two of them, which gradually deepens into trust and genuine affection – from Jon’s side, anyway. We can only guess at what Lobo really thinks…
However, Lobo isn’t the only machine that Jon can communicate with – he is also able to chat and eavesdrop on drinks dispensers and toasters, which produces some amusing interludes. I really enjoy this world – the inevitable mcguffin that allows humanity to zip around the universe in next to no time are a series jump gates, apparently left or seeded by another species. All very convenient – but there are also a number of interesting aspects to these gates that have a bearing on the plot, in addition to creating extra layers to the story and giving faster-than-light travel extra zip, something that this author is adept at doing.
In a sub-genre where a number of effective world-building writers manage to create their particular brand of magic at the expense of characterisation, Van Name’s characters are believable and suitably complex, allowing him to weave engrossing and complicated plots in first person viewpoint. Indeed, approaching the climax in Slanted Jack, I actually felt physically nervous… If you enjoy fast paced, lively space opera featuring interesting characters then this is a must-read – even if you don’t generally dip your toe into science fiction on the grounds that all that nerdy, techie stuff gets in the way of a good story, you owe it to yourself to track down this book. It’s worth it.