Many sci-fi authors focus on unique plot details and extensive exposition to stand out, doing all they can to create a memorable world for their readers. Books like Sunspots, however, show the other side of the sci-fi genre: the banality of space travel when it’s “just a job.” John is a believable character because readers can immediately relate to him; he is a blue-collar worker on a space scow hauling garbage away from Earth. It’s hardly glamorous work, and the entire novel would have seemed disingenuous if the author, Gary Martin, had tried to paint a different picture.
The twist, of course, is that John’s routine life is suddenly thrown into chaos when the ship is sabotaged by parties unknown and half the crew goes missing. Martin approaches this plot line with his tongue firmly in cheek, and positions John as an incredibly amusing anti-hero, basically the last person you would want to suddenly be put in charge of a spaceship heading straight for the sun. The story is essentially told in a stream of consciousness form, which eventually settles into a good rhythm and makes for quick reading. The time jumps in narration are a good means of breaking up the story, but besides providing insight into the narrator’s relationship troubles and personal history, they don’t progress the plot as much as they could.
The supporting characters are a motley crew of misfits that keep the story moving, and provide most of the suspense, as readers are never certain about the honesty or intentions of the larger group. This book is a slow-burning mystery with a raw edge, like an unedited journal entry from the mind of a middle manager. Writing from a first-person perspective allows for the sort of sharp writing that makes this book shine at certain moments. The pace isn’t always consistent, nor is the prose always polished, but a few lines do stick out. At one point, early on in the book, John says, “Robert looks at me like I need to be stepped on,” which is the sort of terse, gritty narration that keeps this novel afloat.
Too many sci-fi novels get bogged down in the technical details and creative freedom that a futuristic world affords, but Martin isn’t interested in blowing readers’ minds with unbelievable gadgets or newfangled aliens. This story is about a regular guy, rough around the edges, being forced into a leadership role, while simultaneously handling his own emotional carnage. That premise alone makes for interesting reading. The dialogue is colloquial and fast-paced, packed with frustration and foul mouths, but it energizes the story, sometimes being the sole source of entertainment.
The thing about mysteries, however, is that the suspense should eventually be broken. All of the uncertainty and tension building throughout the book should have a legitimate release valve, but this novel never delivers a big pay-off. The explanations that are finally given are a bit flimsy, robbing readers of any head-shaking “Aha!” moments that thrillers and mysteries tend to supply. Martin captures the personalities and the mood of this story like a seasoned sci-fi author, but could have spent more time nailing down a stronger ending that justifies the rest of the story. When you finish a book, some sense of satisfaction or closure is expected, but that cathartic moment was lacking in Sunspots, leaving it as a unique and entertaining novel, but not an exceptional one.