When Spoof isn’t Enough

From the title page Out of the Soylent Planet is utterly unrepentant about what it is. Robert Kroese has written a pretty fast moving and incredibly silly book about an intergalactic conman named Rex Nihilo and his long-suffering robot sidekick Sasha. It has lasguns. It has spaceships. It has lots and lots and lots of robots who are all forbidden from having any kind of original thoughts (Sasha included.) What it didn’t manage that well was laughs, at least not in my book.

Right off the bat I should note that humor is an extremely subjective topic and the fact that I didn’t find Kroese’s work funny doesn’t mean you’ll be equally unimpressed. I’ve heard several people say they thought it was hilarious. From a totally dispassionate point of view Kroese builds a number of jokes in very workmanlike fashion and executes on them well. That’s fine, but workmanlike humor kind of misses the point, at least in my opinion. Again, humor is hard to quantify.

All that said, I don’t intend to critique the humor in this review. I recommend reading a sample of one of the Rex Nihilo books and seeing if you laugh at it, since Kroese’s humor doesn’t change much in nature or tone over the course of the book. What you see is what you will get. You’ll probably get a better grasp of how much you’ll like his sense of humor firsthand rather than trying to see it through the lens of this review.

Instead, I’m going to recommend you avoid this book because the story and characters are very lackluster. I’m not a fan of negative reviews overall, mainly because poor quality media tends to fall into the same pitfalls over and over again. However, while I didn’t like Kroese’s humor and I thought his story had a lot of flaws, I can say it was original! In a way. Which is to say, I found its failures unique and refreshing in their own way.

As I said at the beginning, from the title onward Soylent Planet wears its idea on its sleeve. It is all about making fun of well known scifi ideas and properties. It begins with a chapter long sendup of Star Wars. The issue I have with it is that the Star Wars parody plays out along side the introduction of our characters rather than serving as the introduction to our characters. Rex and Sasha play no direct part in that parody they just watch it play out. It’s parody for the sake of parody, rather than a parody that also tells a story of its own. It’s more a distraction from the story than an enhancement for it and it had the side effect of making our protagonists less than the most interesting thing in the room.

If nothing else, this isn’t a running issue in the story. After this strange introductory chapter Rex and Sasha step up into center stage and their decisions do drive the story and are the major focus of the narrative, rather than being a sort of side show to a parody Kroese is running in parallel. However once Rex and Sasha are in the limelight we run into another problem. Rex is a character that borders on total incompetence who manages to stumble through things on luck. Again, this can work in a humorous story. The Pink Panther films comes to mind. The effectiveness of that is down to the quality of the humor in the story, which again is going to vary from reader to reader. I’ve already said all I have to say about that.

Sasha, on the other hand, is a robot who is forbidden to have original thoughts of her own. If she approaches such a thought, a safety mechanism reboots her. That’s an interesting idea, reminiscent of the narcoleptic character in the movie Rat Race, and seems like it should be the center of numerous gags. It’s not. Instead, it’s a plot device that allows Rex to escape the final danger he faces which is fine, in and of itself. I’m not saying that Kroese should have cut this plot device from the climax of the story, I think the two things could easily coexist. I just felt like neither character really had a central element that really held the story together.

Instead, Rex seems to bounce around from one scenario to another, spoofing on famous scifi ideas, and Sasha is dragged along in his wake. Both characters feel dragged by the plot, reacting rather than acting. Now, character agency is a tricky thing and I do think that passive or reactive characters are just as good as active ones, contrary to popular belief. But I like my reactive characters to have strong, well define core motivations that define their reactions. While Sasha is programmed to serve, that’s as close as either character gets to such a central motivation. I would’ve liked to see a stronger core to both characters to balance their passivity in this book.

What I can praise Kroese for is a good setup and payoff for the plot. He does a reasonable job of putting all the pieces in place for his climax before he gets there and he clearly enjoyed writing it. While many of the transitions in the story are clunky, the core idea is pretty polished. I want to enjoy this book. It’s just crammed full of things that make it hard for me. I wanted this story to have a point, to do something of its own with its characters and world. Kroese built it to spoof on scifi ideas and tropes instead. He executed on that idea pretty well in Soylent Planet. Whether you’ll enjoy that or not is a matter of taste.