STRINGERS by Chris Panatier (BOOK REVIEW)
“The world had altered so drastically that I was unable to process it. Twenty minutes before, I had been driving the Subaru, anticipating the chance to finally get answers. Now, I was cuddling a jar of pickles on a bounty hunter’s spaceship, and all I could think about was the temperature of my best friend’s balls.”
Chris Panatier’s Stringers (2022) is a delightfully silly space opera packed with fun, friendship and a surprising amount of insect sex. The book revels in humour and playfulness, with amusing footnotes and sections of backwards text nestling side by side with a gonzo slapstick aesthetic. Yet for all the book’s silliness and fun, and its breakneck pace, Panatier never forgets the warmth and humanity of his characters, nor the stakes in the situations he puts them in. Stringers finds space for its characters to breath in amidst all the shenanigans. And whilst the novel is a strong contender for the most fun book of the year, the ease with which Panatier approaches experiments with form and grand scale space opera ideas hint at hidden depths.
Ben Sullivan lives in a small town and works a dead-end job, splitting his time between getting stoned with his best friend Patton and trying to solve the mystery that’s haunted him his entire life. Ben has knowledge that he shouldn’t have – his head is full of facts about bug sex and knowledge of how to fix watches, two subjects he has never learned about. Whilst trawling internet forums, he comes across someone who promises him the answers to the questions he has been asking about himself. Unfortunately, instead of answers, Ben and Patton find themselves kidnapped by an alien bounty hunter, leaving Earth far behind and due to be sold to the sinister and mysterious Scythin, who will pay handsomely for the contents of Ben’s head. For Ben is a Stringer, a person who is connected to the consciousness of other people via the Fray, the vast intermeshing of consciousness of the universe. And further down past existences, beyond the bug obsessive and watch enthusiast, is ancient knowledge the Scythin need to repair their ship, technology that if ever used will unravel the universe itself. It’s up to Ben, Patton and the ragtag group of aliens they befriend to save everyone before it’s too late.
Stringers is full of daft humour, and the buddy dynamic between the cynical and somewhat selfish Ben and the simple but loyal and good-hearted Patton is beautifully done. There’s a real warmth between the two characters, which means that when their space adventures put their relationship under stress there’s real emotional investment. The novel is told largely through Ben’s perspective, and his sarcastic, slacker humour sets the tone for their adventures. Ben is a great character because his existence as a Stringer makes him naturally a bit self-obsessed, so while he can be heroic he can also be spectacularly self-absorbed. The interplay between that and Patton’s doofy generosity of spirit is the heart of the book. Panatier uses footnotes inventively throughout Ben’s narration, replicating the experience of being inside a busy head for the reader, as Ben is always interrupting his own train of thought with both startling facts about insect genitalia and sarcastic asides.
The other lead character is Naecia, an alien Stringer who constructs the engine that allows them to travel faster than light. An immigrant forced into backbreaking physical labour to support her family but possessed of a keen intellect, Naecia is a much more straightforwardly heroic contrast to Ben and Patton’s stoners in space routine. She brings an emotional depth and gravitas to the book that it would otherwise be lacking. Panatier has constructed a universe in which humans are an insignificant part of the galaxy, and Naecia’s alien viewpoint allows us a window into how the space opera dynamics between the various alien civilisations work, as well as a more steadfast moral compass than our two humans. Although in this case it’s all relative – she does attempt to kill our heroes to save the galaxy from the secrets locked in Ben’s head. Naecia is contrasted wonderfully with Aptat, the immoral Stringhunter who kidnaps her, Ben and Patton, and reluctantly works alongside our heroes as long as it’s in their best interest. Aptat is utterly amoral and cheerfully admits it; they even lecture our heroes on why their tragic backstory doesn’t excuse any of the shitty things they do. This contrasts nicely with the more existential threat of the Scythin, who are a truly terrifying creation. A swarm intelligence that travels between universes by punching holes through them, the Scythin are alien and unknowable. Yet Panatier even manages to find humanity in the Scythin, a testament to empathy and understanding extended across species barriers.
Stringers is a gloriously eccentric mixture of elements, yet somehow Panatier manages to shape it into a compelling, coherent whole. And for all its gonzo fun, it’s a novel of real heart that is unafraid of engaging with more serious ideas. Stringers is the most fun you’re likely to have with a book this year, and you’ll emerge with a host of interesting and grisly facts about insect reproduction.