Chances are, you’ve never heard of this book or its author, but if you read science fiction over the past decade you came across works by John Scalzi. The short version of this review thus could be that Yahtzee Croshaw’s book, WSTGFF (sorry; I won’t copy/paste the entire name every time) is more intelligent and funnier than Scalzi’s space romps. But that would still be shortchanging this title. WSTGFF is a fun space romp, full of adventure, confusion and strange characters. It is very melancholic and funny at once. And you can say it’s got a soul.
Before we begin, full disclosure: I’m an unabashed fan of Croshaw’s humor. I interacted with him back in the late 90s and early 2000’s on the Home of the Underdogs forums. Not much, mind you, but enough to appreciate his intellect. I’ve been a fan of his adventure games, in particular his Trilby series, and his game Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment was one of my highlights of the year it was released. In addition to great storytelling, tight plots and humor, he has shown some impressive MS Paint drawing skills. After the forums went to the dogs, I stopped following his endeavors, and was quite surprised to come across his novel. I was glad to find that he spent the years refining his set of skills.
WSTGFF is narrated in first person by its main protagonist. He is one of many star pilot adventures, who in the past traveled from planet to planet to rescue the native inhabitants from monsters, invaders or competing species. Back in the old days, they were all heroes. But things have changed: a new technology, quantum tunneling, made all travel instantaneous, and nobody needed star pilots anymore. They ended up washed out in a lunar city where they hound tourists with their offers of a space trip in their derelict ships. Only one pilot seems to have struck it big: he started writing his stories as series of adventures, and liberally borrowed from other pilots’ experiences. Jacques McKeown, which is most certainly a pseudonym, has thus become presumably filthy rich and the top target for any space pilot whose adventures he ripped off.
Our protagonist finds himself in a slightly more financial distress than the other pilots, and readily agrees to a contract from a lady, Penelope Warden, to impersonate another pilot at a dinner. In the only twist in the book that has been telegraphed several pages ahead, the pilot he is impersonating is McKeown. He finds himself introduced to his “biggest fan”, a sixteen years old son of the most powerful mafia boss in the Solar system. He is quickly upgraded to the son’s personal pilot, and after a whirlwind of twists and turns finds himself on a space ship with Warden, Daniel (the son), and Daniel’s love interest Jemima, trying to outrun the irate space pilots who think he really is McKeown. From this point forward, the book is a rollercoaster of twists that nobody could see coming, and the four must navigate space, fight a Borg-like collective on a planet, and avoid man-eating Tribble substitutes, pirates, space-bound SWAT teams and a nigh indestructible enforcer for Daniel’s father.
All this is done with a graceful humor and excellent pacing. Unlike humorous sci-fi books by other authors, this title is a lot more intelligent. Instead of witty one-liners, we get jokes that were set up several pages before the punchline is delivered, and they are so well done, that the reader still remembers what the joke is about. The humor is also very gentle. Croshaw invented his own set of curse words, derived from mathematical terms (space pilot hate mathematics, which they blame for quantum tunneling), and despite nearly constant cursing the writing is never crude. The action never stops, but fatigue never really sets in, as the author varies the setting and set of challenges his characters are facing to such a degree that it never gets boring.
Speaking of characters, they are a mixed bag. The protagonist (note that I never name him, because by my count “Jacques McKeown” is his fourth identity) is a believable space pilot who used to save planets. He is capable, but not overly heroic. Warden describes him as a cockroach who adapts to every situation, and I think it’s a very apt description. While unapologetic about his shortcomings, the protagonist is very likeable. He develops a little over time, but most of his changes consist of pulling back layers of his personality. Warden, on the other hand, is extremely one-dimensional. She is the true antagonist, responsible for everything bad that happens to the motley crew of adventurers, and always expecting the protagonist to save them, giving him a hard time in the process. She never changes a bit, and her personality is so severely one-sided that she could be played by a wax mannequin if the book is ever filmed. The rest of the characters are just bit players and not interesting at all. Jemima is the only one who doesn’t repeat herself all the time, and I found her sympathetic, but she only serves to further the story when neither of the main characters can conceivably make the required mental turn.
Some people were disappointed by the ending of the book. It is certainly unexpected, and out of character with the rest of the book. It features some character development of the protagonist, and not everyone may come to terms with that. When I read the book, at first I felt the same. But in hindsight, I think the ending was perfect. It hammered down the nostalgia I felt, under the torrent of adventure and humor, throughout the entire novel. It also evoked other positive feelings, but revealing them may spoil the ending for others. All in all, WSTGFF is a true diamond in the rough. It is not groundbreaking. It doesn’t feature any new concepts; in fact, it satirizes existing tropes. But so do other books, which are much better known despite worse writing and more crude humor. This title warrants much greater recognition as the classic it deserves to become.