The Vimana Incident features alternate history, time slip, and a deliberate homage to one of the most respected names in science fiction. By her own admission, author Rose LaCroix has set herself some ambitious goals with this novel. Has she bitten off more than she can chew?
The cover by NightPhaser is rich in tiny details and psychedelic in design, recalling the more out-there covers of science fiction from the 1960s. But where those fanciful images often bore no resemblance to the contents of the book, everything pictured on the front of The Vimana Incident is imbued with significance.
The action opens in an alternate 1939, where instead of preparing for war, the big players on the international scene are vying against each other in a space race. Flamboyant fox Edward ‘Red Ned’ Arrowsmith is an engineer and a civilian, but he finds himself pressed into a top secret mission to the Moon with another civilian and three military lunanauts.
The five are sent to investigate a mysterious spacecraft which appears to be Terran in origin, yet built using technologies far in advance of anything known on Earth. When Ned finds a way in to the craft, he and three of his companions—stag Robert Hawthorne, Russian hare Viktoria Aksakova, and Ned’s American opposite number Tom Ingerholt, a wolf—find themselves whisked not only into the future, but along an alternate timeline.
As if that wasn’t enough, Ned starts having disturbing dreams about a figure from history, Godric of Hereford. And with four creatures flung together far from home and out of their element, Ned’s homosexuality becomes an additional source of tension. When the foursome reaches the planet Enkidu…but here be spoilers.
Until this point, the story has been relatively slow. We get to know the characters, the frequency of weird happenings gradually increases, and there are rich, loving descriptions of both the alternate past and the technology of the future. Shortly after the halfway mark it starts to gallop along, with Ned caught up in more and more confusing and surreal situations and the timeline switching from the 12th century to the late 1940s in a world where the second war happened after all to a future ahead of our time, but before the far future Ned visits in the spacecraft.
Confused? You might be, but Rose LaCroix has the plot firmly in hand, bringing everything—or almost everything—together for the conclusion. It’s an enjoyable and exciting ride; Ned’s vanity and fragility are all too real, making him an appealing character, and the dialogue feels convincing for the various periods yet retains plenty of snap.
The various periods have been well researched (and the alternate timeline is convincing), but all this knowledge is borne lightly, without too many infodumps. Okay, there’s a biggish chunk near the start about the British aeronautical industry, but I am unlikely to complain about what is essentially a paragraph of plane porn. There are lots of nice touches, like the airship which takes Ned to the USA in an early chapter. The word chosen for the international spacefarers is ‘lunanauts,’ to distinguish from the American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts of our own reality.
It’s mentioned that Red Ned’s character is based on codebreaker and computer scientist Alan Turing, but he fits well among the eccentric-genius British aeronautical engineers of the interwar period—like Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bomb used in the Dambusters raid, on whom I based a character in my first published furry story.
The Vimana Incident forms part of a story cycle that starts with The Goldenlea and includes the adult novellas Basecraft Cirrostratus and Escape from St Arned, along with the upcoming The Linen Butterfly. Vimana, the most recently released, is the first I’ve read, but all are also suitable as standalone reads. I could guess a little of how the canon ties in just from the reviews I’ve read of the other books, and undoubtedly I’m missing a lot more clues that would be obvious to someone who’s read the lot.
In her introduction, LaCroix mentions the inspiration she took from the life and work of Philip K. Dick. I did find some similarities of theme—an alienated protagonist, a trippy feel, multiple realities—but I wonder if I’d have picked up on these if I hadn’t been told to look out for them. To be fair, I’ve read a few of Dick’s novels but nowhere near everything, nor am I that well up on the author’s biography (took some drugs; wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is about my level).
Rather, the author who came to my mind throughout The Vimana Incident was Nevil Shute, the favourite novelist of my late father. Shute, whose best-known works are A Town Like Alice and On the Beach, mixed accurate and detailed accounts of aviation (he was an aeronautical engineer before his writing career—I’m sorry—took off) with fantastical elements, and wrote several stories in which present events echo, and are intruded into by, those of the past. (If that tickles your fancy, try An Old Captivity, The Rainbow and the Rose or In the Wet.)
At 208 pages, The Vimana Incident is a short novel (or a long novella), and there were places and themes I’d have liked to have seen explored more fully. After a gradual start, the tipping point is reached and events and lives start tumbling past with increasing rapidity, though this adds to the dreamlike, disassociated feel.
All my nitpicks are small ones involving slightly clunky sentences or matters of pedantic detail—and if I can accept that the main character is an anthropomorphic fox, it seems churlish to complain that the presence of turtles is unlikely in an English river.
Has LaCroix succeeded in her ambition for the novel? From a reader’s point of view, she has created a satisfying and intriguing story. I looked forward to the next chapter while I was reading it, and I’ll certainly be reading it again. Whether she has produced a work of the quality she herself wanted, well, only the author can say, but I’m reminded of that annoyingly ubiquitous quote about shooting for the moon and missing to land among the stars. The sphere of furry writing can only benefit from this breed of originality and its lofty aims.
This review is of a proof copy given by the author.