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The stunning new novel by Alban Ringler is part science fiction, part absurdist comedy, and part examination of life, particularly the life of someone you loved and lost. Not your own life, which is useless without that someone, that is worthless without their smile. Rather, the life of someone you would gladly die to protect. When that life is taken from you, what changes does it exact?
If this were a film you might expect a handsome lead, but in this case it’s a robot mop separated from its robot bucket partner: an antiseptic yin and yang. The remarkable thing is how effortlessly we buy into the simple object’s affecting pathos; easier perhaps in a visual treatment but in written form it’s astounding, the normally wooden handle surprisingly nimble.
Buck the mop spends the novel traversing the cosmos, chasing his Kit, cutting himself off from the present and any hope of salvation or healing. The real grief it feels, the echoing loneliness, is a mirror of the nothingness of cold space that surrounds it, both in the starship itself and the universe it crosses. Buck is Shakespearean tragedy and Chaplinesque pantomime; his plight is eternal and timeless.
Although nothing’s sadder than a lonely robot, even if it is just a mop, the novel has great humor, finding delight in all of Buck’s self appointed tasks aboard the Lightship. With a colorful cast of characters, every door opens a new chance to impress, and Ringler never disappoints. From the talking chair on the second deck to the self flushing toilet in room 62818, Suicide By Starship is a joyride, albeit a bittersweet one. For every sad note there’s a measure of hope and levity, allowing the author a chance to push the boundaries in both directions, each side expanding the scope of the story.
Underneath the technical display is an examination of what it means to feel, but does that conversation exclude machines? Not in this case. What would ordinarily be an argument over isolationism/self defense vs. risk/reward in humans, with Buck it’s simply replaying past events and yearning for a reunion. How different is that really from what some of us would do in similar circumstances?
Maybe Buck isn’t even indicative of most robots: maybe he’s just a robot that is prone to reminiscing. Maybe other robots would have moved on by now, but Buck doesn’t feel complete without his Kit. Again, how many of us can relate? So our hero moves through each phase of loneliness, regret, hope and wishing as he makes his rounds. Most of the novel is quiet and introspective with alternating emotional ups and downs as Buck moves through the massive starship. Not so the frightening scenes when Buck is recharging. Here the author plunges the reader into dark places indeed. Like carnival horrorhouse mirrors that distort and make spooky everything they see, the robot’s travels into the netherworlds of its purgatory are filled with existential threats lurking just outside its senses, filling every moment with a claustrophobic impending sense of danger. But such moments merely balance out the lighter ones and give the book surprising depth.
Ringler won the coveted Planetary Award For Outstanding Science Fiction for his 2008 novel Matter Eater and his previous Brain Of Glass has been optioned for motion picture rights. He is also an accomplished oboist, having recorded and toured with several artists since he was a teenager, including a 1993 stint with Long Island based Farkle.
Born Alban Rungler, he was the third child of German parents and was part of a musical family when only a boy. Though raised a drummer young Ringler didn’t care for the skins and so moved on to reeds before getting his first piece of brass in a church basement. Juggling prose and music, Ringler eventually opted for a job with the town clerk where he could write all day and get paid doing it. Despite telling himself it was precisely the kind of job he was looking for, he was unhappy there and soon began suffering health problems.
Taking his invisible wizard’s advice he quit that job and focused on composing novels instead, with an occasional music gig to help pay the psychiatric bills. After only a few short years of selling even shorter stories on street corners, Ringler eventually had a scifi piece published in Playbot magazine and from there his career took off. All told, the writer has received six major awards and sold millions of copies of nine published novels. Although it’s hard to tell with a mind like Ringler’s, it seems the author is on top of his game.