Finder, the debut novel from Suzanne Palmer (winner of a 2018 Hugo Award for the novelette “The Secret Lives of Bots”), is a fast-paced, hugely enjoyable sci-fi adventure—a rollicking ride from a hardscrabble space colony at the outer edge of the galaxy to the conflict-ridden settlements of colonized Mars and back again, with stops on the way at an alien spaceship and a holiday planet laden with glorious beaches.
The resourceful and likable protagonist, Fergus Ferguson (he’s Scottish, and no, his mom wasn’t trying to be funny) is a “finder,” a sort of intergalactic repo-man, abd he’s been tasked with tracking down, hacking into, and returning a stolen sentient spaceship called Venetia’s Sword. The job takes him to the space colony Cernekan (Cernee to the locals), which is located in “a half devoured solar system on the edge of the galactic spiral arm.” There, he must figure out how to recover the prized vessel from one Arum Gilger: power-hungry, violence-prone ex-nobleman-turned-arms merchant.
But before Fergus even makes it to Cernee proper, the space cable car he’s riding in is attacked, and he is saved from certain death by the only other passenger onboard, a gnarly old lichen farmer known as Mother Vahn.
The fate of Mother Vahn after the attack, and Fergus’s own dramatic arrival in Cernee, upset the precarious balance within the colony, igniting a civil war. That complicate Fergus’s retrieval mission, to say the least, and threatens the livelihoods (and lives) of the local populace. Fergus’ job grows ever-more complicated as he makes friends and enemies in the various factions of Cernee and eventually attracts the attention of the Asiig, a mysterious aliens that occasionally abducts people, and occasionally also returns them, seemingly unharmed.
Palmer keeps the story moving along at clip, peppering Fergus’ misadventures with plenty of political intrigue, alien interference, religious fanaticism, and mysterious motivations as her grows ever-more tangled in the snarl of small-colony politics. And that’s only the half of it—midway through the book, all the plot threads—Fergus’s troubled past on Mars, the looming presence of the alien Asiig in their black ships, the increasingly desperate fighting on Cernee—come together in a way that propels the narrative in an entirely new direction, setting up the riveting latter half and laying the groundwork for a satisfying payoff.
In her first novel-length work, Palmer builds a compelling, realistically gritty, and plausibly vast universe inhabited by humans and aliens, riven with conflicts and alliances, and full of fascinating nooks and crannies that seem to persist beyond the edges of the story. She’s quite good at the sort of everyday details that makes a world feel lived-in—the nitty gritty of lichen farming, the delights and horrors of sampling the foods of a new world—with fun and often funny sci-fi concepts—the intricacies of hacking into a sentient spaceship; what happens when you try to be stealthy but end up riding a flystick that shoots purple holo-glitter. In one rather unforgettable scene, Fergus and his friends attempt to create a diversion using vibrating sex toys.
Fergus is a wonderful protagonist: resourceful, persistent, and hiding a streak of reckless heroism beneath a wise-cracking, self-deprecating exterior. He has a knack for MacGyver-ing together unlikely but (somewhat) functional solutions from whatever scraps are available to him and crafting brazen plans that often don’t work out quite as expected. In his own words: “All of you know that my plans tend to be ridiculous and go wildly wrong and weird in unanticipated ways, right?” Right.
For fans of adventure sci-fi, Finder will engage and entertain. The dialogue snaps and crackles, the blend of real-world science and sci-fi tech is inventive, and the motley cast of characters both helping and trying to thwart Fergus in his mission are truly memorable. The deft worldbuilding and complex character motivations only make it more satisfying—there’s really no reason a novel this funny needs to be this well thought-out, but it’s all the better for that.
The ending satisfies, but leaves a clear opening for sequels; Palmer’s website indicates there is indeed a second Finder novel in the works. I’m glad to hear it: after reading the first one, I’m ready to follow Fergus Fergusson on whatever weird space adventure he falls into next.
In the meantime (and especially if, like me, you’re a fan of SFF short stories), you’ll also be interested to know that most of Palmer’s science fiction stories (published in venues like Asimov’s, Analog, and Clarkesworld, and reprinted in various Best of… anthologies) are set in the same universe as Finder, though not necessarily featuring the same characters.
You can find some of them in these anthologies:
- “Lazy Dog Out” in Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017
- “The Secret Life of Bots” in The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 3
- “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” in Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF 5
- “Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man” in Best Science Fiction of the Year, Vol. 2
- “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” in 35th Annual Year’s Best Science Fiction