Kieran Shea’s Off Rock by has a number of elements associated with great science fiction: a feeling of isolation out in the black, nifty far-future tech (here associated with mining dead rocks in space), and tense and terrific action sequences—including mass destruction and a collision in zero G, but all of it is centered around the sort of bumbling mid-level bum who rarely gets his own book. Jimmy Vik is a low-level employee of a mining corporation, and his one ambition is to make good on a fluke discovery of a huge horde of unmined gold by getting it off that dead space rock and into his bank account on Earth.
Think of Jimmy like the character usually played by John Travolta in the movies: good-looking dude, generally clueless about women, even his co-workers. We see disaster coming for him a long way off, which raises the tension, but might also want to slap him upside the head for being a dumbass. Yes, he’s in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but it’s one of his own making. It’s certainly a twist: a down-on-his-luck protagonist in a larger-than-life space (or just…space).
Other characters on the mining station get involved in his scheme, including Leela, Jimmy’s ex, a low-level bureaucrat for the mining company in charge of operations on the titular rock; the shipping manager, Jock, who is obviously not to be trusted; and Piper, the assassin sent to eliminate Jock because of debts he’s built up via gambling and can’t pay. Piper fascinated me the most, perhaps because she’s the most proactive—she comes to the station with a definite goal in mine, she has a private life she enjoys, and she’s the smartest character in the book, instantly sizing up everyone she meets, and keeping a cool head in imposing situations.
Jimmy and Leela share a chemistry that will cause you to wonder why these two connected in the first place. Leela is still hung-up on him, and and angry over getting dumped; Jimmy himself isn’t sure why he broke up with her. The narrative hints it’s because Leela felt Jimmy should want more out of life. That makes sense, but doesn’t explain why Leela remains fond of him, especially after he pulls her into a conspiracy that could cost her her job and her life.
If I didn’t quite get the feels from Jimmy and Leela, I did dig the relationship between Piper and her fiancé—even though he’s off-page. It’s clear she’s genuinely in love with the guy. (I’m picturing Piper as Kathyrn Winnick or Linda Fiorantino in The Last Seduction.) My interest in the character led me to look up Shea’s cyberpunk thrillers starring Koko Martstellar, a badass, queer former mercenary living out her days as a high-end brothel owner in a lawless island nation. Shea definitely has a talent for writing this sort of hard-as-nails woman, and I’d certainly love a whole book of Piper.
Interestingly, Off Rock is a book without a solid antagonist; in a sense, the complexity of the heist is the antagonist, fighting Jimmy every step of the way. The epic action sequence at the climax is less due to a final confrontation than a series of events outside the control of any of the characters, like a game of Mouse Trap that comes flying apart at a crucial moment.
Though I perhaps would have preferred more meat to the character relationships, or a stronger baddie, the mission is the motivating factor, and Jimmy’s struggle to survive, and get his gold off-rock, kept me flipping pages fast. If you’re after a plot-oriented, quick-moving caper, Off-Rock is as good as gold.