Dave Duncan. Wildcatter (EDGE 2012).
Dave Duncan writes solid entertainments, usually fantasy, but recently he’s done some fine SF, & Wildcatter certainly fits that bill. It’s an adventure story, set in a future where explorers can, if very lucky, discover something important on new planets & so become very rich. In the time of Wildcatter, a lot of interstellar exploration has already occurred; a few huge corporations now control most of the exploration of newfound planets. But one small consortium has managed to get a jump on the big companies with its one small ship & has arrived after many months of ‘jumps’ at a world where its ‘prospector’ (the Wildcatter of the title) will descend to the planet’s surface & try to get some valuable specimens.
Seth, the wildcatter, has to be a master of many trades, as well as emotionally committed to extreme danger, to do this. And Duncan’s choice of him as a point of view character allows for lots of humour is the representation of the other 5 characters aboard the ship: the captain, the navigator, the owner/master, the biologist, & the planetologist. All are brilliant at their jobs, but Seth proves to be both a brilliant multi-tasker (as low person in the ship’s hierarchy) & what we would call very street-wise, which proves more than just useful toward the end of this space-age tall tale. The novel begins in medias res, but as they enter the planet’s star system, Duncan provides background on how Seth won his place, & how his culture works. It’s interesting: clearly humans will be sexually active when confined to a small space for a long period, & so there are a number of co-habiting possibilities among the six: 2 men, 2 women, & 2 ‘herms’ (double-gendered, a biological/technological development of the late 23rd century, it now being late in the 24th). Not just possibilities but complexities, & Duncan handles them as intriguing social comedy.
When the Golden Hind arrives at their new planet, they find that the largest corporation has beaten them to it & left a warning ‘flag’ in space. Apparently, their prospectors caught a virus on-planet, & died there. So they should not go down. But, our protagonists think there’s something fishy about this warning, & their whole enterprise depends on possibly finding something worthy or else they will all be bankrupt (in a society that, as Duncan cannily implies with some well-placed comments, is the worst possible example of the 1% & the 99%, the extremely rich & all the more or less downtrodden rest).
This new world is extremely dangerous, too (Duncan likes constructing strange but possible worlds): , heavy mass, lying sideways, with huge temperature differentials, & consistent hurricane level winds. Just getting down will be very difficult, but Seth lives for danger – it’s his drug – so he will go. And when he gets there, he finds much more than the warning signal suggested: not just a survivor of the earlier landing but something much more interesting (in the Chinese sense). How Seth navigates both the physical dangers of the planet, as well as the legal & political ones he suddenly finds he is facing, makes for both a straight human-vs-nature adventure & something of a political thriller. Duncan always gives his readers good entertainment, but he also almost always manages to layer in subtle social & political commentary, & in Wildcatter he does so with his usual panache. It’s great fun, with a little extra punch.