Falcon, Emma Bull (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
There is a type of story which appears in American science fiction with surprising frequency. The main character is a pilot of starships, and often the best in the story’s universe. They may or may not have once been military. But now they are very much at odds with the authorities. Falcon may have been published in 1989, suggesting Han Solo from Star Wars as the inspiration for such a character, but I suspect it stretches further back. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the romanticisation of jet fighter pilots during the Cold War; or the public adulation directed at the test pilots who became the early astronauts. Whatever the origin, there are plenty of examples in sf, written by both female and male writers. Most of these characters, as in the case of Niki Falcon in Emma Bull’s Falcon, are male; the only female examples which immediately spring to mind are Dancer in Michelle Shirey Crean’s Dancer of the Sixth, Gaelian YnTourne in Angel at Apogee by SN Lewitt, and Nicole Shea in Chris Claremont’s trilogy of First Flight, Grounded! and Sundowner.
Niki does not start Falcon as a pilot. He is Viscount Harlech, a prince of the ruling family of the world of Cymru. And there are no prizes for guessing which culture Bull has “borrowed” for her invented planet. Niki is something of a wastrel, with no interest in supporting his brother the ruler, Lord Glyndwyr, and much prefers to spend his time carousing in low dives in the capital, Canaerfon. And then he stumbles across what appears to be a plan to destabilise the government. But before he can act on what he las learnt, the Concorde attacks, kills his family and seizes control of the planet. Niki only just manages to escape.
The novel then jumps ahead several years. Niki is now Niki Falcon, the sole survivor of an experimental military programme to create a superlative pilot. The programme worked, but was expensive, dangerous, and, thanks to the drugs and surgery used, the pilots died gruesome deaths after only a handful of years. Niki does not have long left. He is now a pilot for hire, and is hired by Chrysander, a singer, for an unspecified mission… which proves to be breaking the blockade around Chrysander’s home world, Lamia. Because Lamia is under attack by the Concorde, who intend to massacre its inhabitants. And so Niki’s past catches up with him, and he reluctantly helps the Lamians to defeat the Concorde’s forces…
For all that Falcon is a very readable heartland sf novel, there’s little in it that stands out. Universes comprising worlds with monolithic cultures, especially cultures borrowed from Western nations, were common in science fiction throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, but the idea is now considered passé. Bull uses a variation on hyperspace, called Cheatspace, for her FTL, but it’s just semantics. In fact, Falcon is more or less bolted together from well-used tropes, some perhaps given a quick lick of paint to fool the eye as to their freshness. This is not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes, it’s all that science fiction readers want, even if it feels like squandering the genre’s potential.
There are a couple of good set-pieces in Falcon, and the characters are likeable. The prose is very readable. But it all feels a bit tired, and days after finishing the novel it’s hard to remember the details of the plot or characters. Bull did not return to the universe of Falcon, and most of her output has actually been fantasy. She is perhaps best-known for her debut, a fantasy novel published in 1987, War for the Oaks. A lot of her published work has been in collaboration with her husband Will Shetterley, including two anthology series, Liavek and Chronicles of the Borderlands.
Falcon is an enjoyable read, but a forgettable one. It’s good a for a longish journey, but it’s hardly surprising it’s pretty much forgotten these days.