In 1990, I was deep in the throws of a university degree. I had little time for recreational reading and even less money, so I missed a good number of books that were published during those very lean years for me. A couple of years ago I found Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland on the bookshop shelf as part of Gollancz’s Science Fiction Masterworks series and decided to pick it up. It found its way onto my TBR pile and there it stayed until recently. After reading, devouring, I regret never having read it sooner.
The story opens with the lead character, one Tabitha Jute, returning to Mars for the carnival in Schiaparelli. As the pilot of her own small cargo ship, a Bergen Kobold called Alice Liddell which is in great need of repair, Tabitha quickly manages to run afoul of the law and ends up in prison for the night. Upon being released she now not only must get the Alice Liddell repaired, but pay a massive fine within the next twenty-four hours. Not an auspicious start for Tabitha.
Despite being in such a mess Tabitha heads to a bar in search of work only to end up meeting Marco Metz, the leader of a group of wandering performers that happen to be looking for a ride to Titan. Before they go to Titan, however, they need to get to the colony of Plenty. Marco Metz’s merry band of performers include an alien talking bird, a pair of clone twins and a post-human cherub. Tabitha has reservations but Marco assures her that her fine will be paid and her ship repaired just as soon as they get to Plenty. Being hard up for the money Tabitha accepts the job.
As the story unfolds Tabitha encounters a slew of alien cultures that have become part of the human experience. The stoic Eladeldi who act as administrators for the shadowy Capellans. The bizarre Frasque that build the station Plenty for seemingly peaceful means but turned out to be something else altogether, and the uplifted Guardians, caretakers for the Capellans. Then of course there are the space pirates. There is a lot going on in Take Back Plenty and you can’t help but get swept along in the action.
In addition to the main plot there are interludes that reveal the history of Tabitha Jute as she talks about her life to the computer of the Alice Liddell. While they seem rather tangential at first, they do come together with the main plot by the end giving the reader that ‘ah-haaa’ moment when it all fits together.
Colin Greenland reveals his literary roots as well by inserting an initially unknown narrator to explain certain things that is very reminiscent of the narrator in Henry Fielding’s classic novel Tom Jones. Which is relevant as there is a certain wryness to Greenland’s writing and the character of Tabitha Jute that I think Fielding would have appreciated.
In many ways Take Back Plenty is a novel ahead of its time. The main character is a female minority at a time when most stories centred around white(ish) male(ish) characters. Greenland was rather irked with his American publisher when they made Tabitha a tall white woman on the cover of the book. The girl on the cover of the Gollancz Masterworks edition is much more appropriate and in keeping with the character.
Greenland writes Tabitha as if he knew her well. She’s a strong and interesting character that you can’t help but feel for. She’s not asking for much, just a chance to run her ship and keep working. Fans of the short-lived television series Firefly will immediately identify with Tabitha Jute and the Alice Liddell. The way Tabitha speaks about her ship, even though it is old and not very attractive, you can tell there’s more to her than meets the eye.
In Take Back Plenty Greenland welds together many aspects of science fiction and literature. He subtly wove together elements of classic science fiction from the early pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventiveness of the 1960s New Wave science fiction writers like Michael Moorcock and Samuel Delany, the cut and thrust edginess of 1980s cyberpunk from the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and the literary styling of Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens. Greenland does all of this while managing to be fresh and vibrant and never sounding as if he’s regurgitating things he’s read. With all this weaving the reader never doubts for a moment that this is a Space Opera.
Take Back Plenty is a Space Opera in the grandest sense as well. It is full of alien life and culture that Greenland has given a real sense of depth and history. His aliens and their cultures, I felt, were given the same thought that C. J. Cherryh has given her alien cultures among her many books. I don’t think you’d ever find a Frasque or an Atlecean as any of the rubber-headed aliens that were common in science fiction television and film at the time. Even today Greenland’s are on par with any written about by Cherryh or Banks for their completeness and unique qualities.
The thing that comes across so clearly in Take Back Plenty is the high level of enthusiasm Greenland has for this story. He wrote an exciting and adventurous story while maintaining a high level of literary standards. It could have been easier if he had written a in a more pulpy style but Greenland didn’t and the reader is rewarded by it. I can honestly say that Take Back Plenty is one of the best Space Opera stories I’ve ever read.
There are two sequels to Take Back Plenty, Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty, which have not had the same reception as Take Back Plenty, but I will certainly be ordering copies of those to read at my earliest opportunity. After how wonderful the first book was I think I need to determine for myself how they compare.
I could never recommend Take Back Plenty enough and think it deserves its place among the other Masterworks of the Gollancz line. I would go as far to say that it deserves a place among the best science fiction ever written. If you are looking for a great Space Opera, written well and completely absorbing, you cannot go far wrong with this brilliant book.