James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Looking For the Burning Truth

Breaking Strain  (Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime, volume 1)

By Paul Preuss 

25 Jan, 2019

Big Hair, Big Guns!


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Paul Preuss’ 1987’s Breaking Strain is the first volume of six in the Arthur C. Clark’s Venus Prime series. 

Taking pity on the amnesiac woman in his care, a guilt-ridden doctor restores her memories. This act costs the doctor his life, but allows the young cyborg, code-named Sparta, to escape the secret medical facility in which she is being held prisoner. 

Reinventing herself as Ellen Troy, Sparta joins the Space Board as an investigator. Her cutting-edge education and advanced implants make her an exemplary recruit. First assignment: Port Hesperus, Venus! 

Or more exactly, Port Hesperus, near Venus. Exploiting the surface of that hostile world is left to tele-operated robots. Port Hesperus is a lavishly appointed habitat in orbit around Venus. It is an orbiting fishbowl of ambition, resentment, and rivalry. If this book were a British cozy mystery, an unlikable character would soon turn up dead. Since this is an SF novel, the first death happens in deep space. 

Soon after Sparta’s arrival, tragedy strikes the interplanetary freighter Star Queen. What appears to be a meteor strike leaves the ship functional, save in one respect: it only has seventy pounds of oxygen left, enough to keep crewmen Grant and McNeil alive for two and a half weeks. Unfortunately, the ship is three weeks out of Venus when the mishap occurs. 

Simple math reveals one solution: thirty-five man-days of oxygen divided between two men over three weeks means death for both. Thirty-five man-days of O2 used by a single person over three weeks means survival. Either one man dies to save the other or both die. 

The Star Queen arrives. Aboard: McNeil, still living. Grant is absent. McNeil explains that the men cut cards to see who would die to save the other. Grant lost. On Grant’s request, McNeil cast Grant’s corpse into deepest space. It’s a very touching story but how much of it is true? 

It is not just a simple case of murder versus suicide. Was the Star Queen actually hit by a fleck of interplanetary debris or was the explosion that took out the life support orchestrated? If the second, who ordered the sabotage? Employees of the troubled company that owns the ill-fated ship, perhaps? Or was it one of a pair of bitter rival billionaires based on Port Hesperus, squabbling over this and that? That’s for Sparta to determine. 

If the secret cabal who wiped her memories, whose agents are even now closing in on her, do not kill her before she can solve the mystery. 


This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the restaurant. 
But Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song, Alice’s Restaurant. 

Allow me to clarify authorship and title: the series is called Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime. The person who actually wrote each novel was Paul Preuss, using various short stories by Clarke as a seed around which the larger works were created. In this case, the seed was a short story called Breaking Strain.” 

Welcome to the exciting world of literary sharecropping! This is when an aspiring (or at least energetic) author teams up with an established author whose fame is no longer matched with the ability1 or desire to produce more works on which to stamp their valuable name. The less established author does most or all of the work, while the famous author’s name draws in the punters. Note, for example, whose name is largest on the cover: 

Not Mr. Preuss’s name. 

(I own a lot of books simply because they had Jim Burns covers.)

Done correctly, both authors benefit from the arrangement: the junior gets an audience and money they might not have otherwise enjoyed, while the senior keeps their brand alive a little longer. Done badly, this can kill a brand: local used book sellers, for example, absolutely refuse to purchase sharecropped Tom Clancy novels because they simply do not sell. 

From a reader’s perspective, share-cropped books are a gamble. Sometimes the junior partner is talented. Sometimes they’re unschooled but energetic. All too often, they are merely available. Sometimes sharecropped books are entertaining. Other times, not so much. There’s no way to know! Well, unless one has access to book reviews. 

This particular example is a bit uneven: Preuss is working hard to establish the grander arc (which involves Conspiracies and Plots and Designs to Create the Next Step in Human Evolution and Rule the Bwahaha World) while also trying to write a more down-to-Earth (well, Venus) police procedural filled with greed, loathing, books, and homicidal intent. There’s also a sultry bisexual sex kitten, whose decision to trade a pompous, unpleasant ass-hat for a more equitable patrician woman turns what was merely mutual loathing between obsessed, entitled plutocrats into something far more intense2. At times the two plots get in each other’s way. As well, this isn’t just a secret history/sexy police procedural, it is a hard SF secret history/sexy police procedural, which means Preuss devotes a fair amount of time explaining how the various props work. 

Still, the books sold well enough that the entire six book series saw print. Embittered readers do not say Preuss’ with the same bitter tone as they do Gentry Lee’ or god help us all, Kevin J. Anderson.’ This particular sharecrop was packaged by Byron Preiss, a remarkable publishing entrepreneur whose ability to keep plates in the air was rivalled only by the speed at which they crashed to the ground after his tragic demise in a traffic accident. Venus Prime’s success may be due to some sensible decisions made at the beginning of the project: 

Preuss was already an established mid-lister, with four novels to his credit when he took on this project. The project was structured in an interesting way, each novel taking as its inspiration some golden-age tale by Clarke, which I think managed to leave room for Preuss to be Preuss without presenting readers with a novel that was Clarke in name only. While there was a grand series plot, each book had to function on its own (which didn’t prevent Preuss from ending this novel on a cliff-hanger). 

From a more specifically James perspective, it helped that Preuss was doing his best to present a reasonable vision of plausible space travel as might exist in the late 21st century. It’s a sad fact that there weren’t a lot of SF novels in 1987 that cared about orbital dynamics and the like. Well, it matters to me. The novels also stood out in a genre whose members would soon embrace The Bell Curve. Much of the plot is generated by Preuss’ rejection of intelligence as a unitary IQ; his attempt to explore how educators might use a more complex model; and speculation as to how that might be hijacked. 

This book was interesting enough that I finished this novel and the five that followed. 

Breaking Strain is apparently out of print. 

1: When the famous author is unproductive because they are dead, this should be known as necrolaboration (IMHO), a portmanteau term composed of one part collaboration and one part necrophilia. In the worst cases, the author’s corpse is not the only thing to get fucked. 

2: The lesbian elements might have been intended as transgressively titillating way back in the 1980s, but the rich fellow in the triangle is such a comprehensive toad that his lover’s decision to dump him in favour of someone just as rich and madly infatuated with her comes across as simple good sense. There are probably no long-term prospects for either relationship, but at least the sex kitten’s new lover doesn’t think she’s property.