The Blurb On The Back:
Dying isn’t any fun …
But at least it’s a living.
Mickey7 is an Expendable: a disposable employee on a human expedition sent to colonise the ice world Niflheim. Whenever there’s a mission that’s too dangerous – even suicidal – the crew turns to Mickey. After one iteration dies, a new body is regenerated with most of his memories intact. Mickey signed on to escape from bad debts and boredom on Midgard.
After six deaths, Mickey7 understands the terms of his deal … and why it was the only colonial position unfilled when he took it.
When he goes missing and is presumed dead at the hands of deadly indigenous creatures, Mickey8 reports for duty, and their troubles really begin.
MICKEY7 by Edward Ashton will be released in the United States on 15th February 2022 and in the United Kingdom on 17th February 2022. Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s the far future.
Mankind has escaped the Earth and spread across the universe in a series of colonies known as the Diaspora, some successful, some incredibly (and inevitably fatally) unsuccessful.
Mickey Barnes was born and grew up on Midgard, a colony built by the Union on a stable planet with a reasonable climate orbiting a red giant where everyone has a place to live and enough money from the government to keep them comfortable. He has a passion for history and in an ideal world would be an academic, but when everyone has ocular devices giving them access to all the information on every subject they could never need, academics aren’t needed.
Bored with his life, he mostly hangs out with his best friend Berto Gomez, an academic genius and world-famous champion pog-ball player who got a coveted spot as a pilot on Midgard’s very first colony ship the Drakkar, which is set to head out to a world called Niflheim. When Mickey’s boredom leads to some heavy gambling funded by a notorious gangster who brutally demonstrates what he’s willing to do to get his money back, Mickey realises that he has to get off Midgard quickly. But despite the dangers associated with colonising new worlds, competition for spots on the Drakkar is fierce and go to the best of the best. The only role for someone with Mickey’s extremely limited skill set is as an Expendable.
Expendables are disposable humans, used whenever a task arises that is too dangerous for anyone else and where it would be too expensive to use a machine. If an Expendable dies, then a clone of them (completely with the backed up memories of the previous version) is created, ready to start afresh. If an Expendable is unlucky, then their memories are backed up while they are dying so that it can learn the lessons of their death and avoid them in future. They also face the social perils of being an Expendable – the Natalists (a religious sect) outright despise them for not having souls, others just aren’t comfortable hanging around clones, and then there are others who see them as a thrill, a chance to have sex with the unusual. As a result, Expendables tend to be convicts conscripted into serving. It’s unheard of for someone to actually volunteer for the job, but then few people are as motivated as Mickey and he figures it can’t possibly be that bad …
8 years later and Mickey is already on his 7th iteration. Niflheim is an icy world populated by hostile, insect-like creatures who the colonists call Creepers. When Mickey7 accidentally falls into a cavern while out on a mission for the colony commander, Hieronymous Marshall (a Natalist who would like nothing more than an excuse to do away with him completely), he agrees with his lover, Nasha (the colony’s second pilot) and Berto that a rescue attempt would be too dangerous and risk too many resources and readies himself for yet another death.
Against the odds though he survives and heads back to the colony dome. Unfortunately Berto had already notified Marshall of his demise and when he arrives in his room, he finds Mickey8 lying in his bunk. The one absolute rule when it comes to Expendables is that you can’t have two around at the same time so the right thing for Mickey7 to do would be to kill himself in the colony’s corpse hole and let Mickey8 take over but when you’ve died as many times as Mickey7 that isn’t an attractive prospect. So somehow both Mickeys need to hide the duplication from Nasha, Berto and everyone else on the colony until one of them dies “naturally”. That’s a difficult trick to pull off at the best of times, but when the Creepers start to launch attacks on the colony, it becomes nigh on impossible …
Edward Ashton’s SF novel is a breezy, entertaining read held together by Mickey7’s excellent first person narration. Ashton does well in differentiating Mickey7 from Mickey8 and setting out the background and perils of colonisation such that it isn’t until the end that you realise how thin the actual plot is and how slight the supporting cast. That said, there are a lot of ideas at play here and I can well understand the buzz surrounding it.
There’s been a lot of buzz about MICKEY7 in recent weeks, in part due to announcements about a planned movie adaptation with Robert Pattinson set to star and Bong Joon Ho (the Oscar winning director of PARASITE) set to produce, write and direct. It’s not hard to see what would draw them to this story because it has a great, high-concept hook and Ashton writes with pace, a dry wit while Mickey7 is an interesting character that offers an actor like Pattinson a lot of scope in terms of performance.
The book basically has two main themes. The first is on the perils of colonisation – of setting forth for a world where you hope for the best but can’t guarantee that the conditions are going to be right to set down and terraform, in which case you’re not going to have the resources to go anywhere else and are facing a death sentence. Ashton uses Mickey7’s love of history to explain different colony missions to the reader and how colonisation has progressed while also introducing other ideas, such as the development of clones and the perils associated with the same (in fact, one of my favourite chapters is precisely about how cloning technology in the wrong hands can lead to horrific results). The second theme is on cloning and identity, with Mickey7 referencing the Ship of Theseus to discuss whether Mickey7 is the same as the original Mickey Barnes or whether the process of regenerating has made him a completely different person and what immortality actually means in this situation.
The way Ashton deals with these themes was, for me, so entertaining that it’s not until you get to the end of the book that you realise that not an awful lot has actually happened. If that sounds like I’m throwing shade, then it’s not intended to – I did genuinely find it entertaining and I kept turning the pages. The thing is though that by the three quarter point of the story, you realise that not a lot has actually happened other than Mickey7 and Mickey8 trying to keep their duplication secret and the Creepers stepping up their attacks on the base. So when the inevitable happens and the duplication is uncovered, there’s not an awful number of pages left for anything particularly dramatic to happen and Ashton’s denouement, which involves a suicide mission against the Creepers, was for me slightly under-powered. This is particularly given what happens in that final quarter where a character death is played in such a low impact way that it’s almost a shoulder shrug while a discovery about the Creepers seems like a missed opportunity for more drama.
Another issue for me with the book is that while Mickey7 has a great first person narrative voice and Ashton manages to draw subtle differences between him and Mickey8, there are big inconsistencies in Mickey7’s character that at times were a little frustrating. Most notable of these is how utterly lacking in curiosity Mickey7 is – he does no research on Expendables before becoming one and no research on the Drakkar or its crew before joining it – and while this is all called out by other characters (my favourite being in a scene with Expendable recruiter Gwen), Mickey7 never really explains why he’s failed to do so given that he is clearly an otherwise intelligent person. Similarly, given what he knows about Berto, Mickey’s decision to bet against him in a pog-ball comeback makes sense for the first game, but when he continues to double down against him it did begin to feel contrived. It’s a shame because at one point given that Berto comes across as a duplicitous character with an agenda of his own I was hoping for a big reveal there (e.g. that Berto had encouraged him to bet against him with the suggestion that he’d throw the game). Indeed, Berto for me was a big missed opportunity because given the lack of real trust in their relationship and his clear suspicions about Mickey7 I was hoping for some better interactions or plot development there.
The supporting characters are unfortunately thinly drawn. Nasha is little more than a love interest who has nothing more to do than be supportive of Mickey7. Ashton does touch upon the difficulties for her of loving someone who is going to die time and time again, but the effect of that on their relationship goes unexplored beyond an acknowledgement. This is a shame because she has a lot of potential as a character, not least because she and her family came to Midgard as refugees following problems on their own colony and the hostility they faced on Midgard meant that she saw joining a colony ship as her only real option. This plays into a wider thematic issue for me in that for all the discussion about colonisation, I never quite understood what drove the colonists on the Drakkar to do it given that Midgard was a comfortable colony for the majority of them and the initial stages of colonisation are clearly very difficult.
Marshall is essentially a cut out blow hard who despises Mickey7 for religious reasons and doesn’t see him as human. The way he looks for excuses to reduce Mickey7’s rations does help to ramp up the stakes for Mickey7 and Mickey8 and, of course, he is the one who sends Mickey7 out on the missions that he hopes will end him for good. Chen is equally a missed opportunity – a security officer who begins to question her role when a mission goes wrong – there are some interesting conversations between her and Mickey7 about being an Expendable but again, there’s no sense of what makes her tick and given what she learns from Mickey7, I wanted more to understand a decision she makes later on.
I’m going to stress again that if my criticisms seem like I’m dunking on the book, then that is not my intention. I did genuinely enjoy this read – it’s pacy, has a lot of different ideas going on and mention should be made of the solid world building that goes on here. Ashton does paint a convincing colony base and shows the harshness of colony life and the need to overcome problems that you could not have anticipated. There are a lot of details from the attempts to grow plants and food, to the need to maintain rations and what those rations look like. I also liked his depiction of the use of anti matter and the power sources available to the colony and how they “recycle” to keep things going. It is all done to such a standard that it’s genuinely not until you get to that final quarter that you begin to notice the deficiencies.
Given Bong Joon Ho’s previous experience with science fiction and horror (most notably in the excellent SNOWPIERCER) I am really interested to see what he does with this book, especially as he has a reputation for reworking source material. Until the film comes out though, I would recommend checking out the original novel because it’s got plenty to keep you turning the pages. I will certainly be checking out Ashton’s other work on the strength of this.