The Affinity Trap is an ambitious far-future space opera by first-time novelist Martin Sketchley. Alexander Delgado is a semi-retired military officer who formerly enjoyed a powerful position within Structure, a proto-fascist military government on Earth. Delgado is currently out of favor with General Myson, the tyrant of Structure, but he is still entrusted with a dangerous task: retrieving Myson's consort, Vourniass Lycern. Lycern is a consoq from the planet Seriatt, charged with bearing Myson a son and cementing an alliance between Structure and Seriatt. Unfortunately for Myson, Lycern escaped shortly after the conception of their child. Delgado sets out to find Lycern, aided by his "nobics," a strategic database within mind's reach at all times. And find her he does.
Lycern belongs to one of three sexes on her home planet of Seriatt. During sex, she secretes muscein from her body, which has a powerful effect on males, and Delgado is no exception. "The thin line of glands down her sides and across her shoulders pulsed, glistening with tacky slime. The large cluster of glands at her crotch were secreting a thick white foam that spread down her inner thighs. The scent was rich, sickly sweet, an invidious aroma" (p. 42). An assissius sac—later described as a "repugnant mass of gel"—emerges from Lycern's body, covering Lycern and Delgado.
In the Clute & Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the entry on "Sex" states that "the conjunction of womanhood and slime may have pathological connotations, but is familiar enough in genre SF and elsewhere." (For instance, "Shambleau" features similarly slimy situations and is written by a woman, C.L. Moore.) The Affinity Trap is a curious new entrant into this subset of SF, with Delgado both addicted to and repulsed by his couplings with Lycern.
Overwhelmed by the muscein, Delgado begins to act erratically. Instead of returning Lycern to Myson, he takes her prisoner and hides out on Elixiion, a massive space station for wealthy sybarites. The novel takes a ponderous turn in this section. Delgado's schizophrenic relationship to Lycern is troublesome. He treats her unkindly—"He pulled his sidearm from its holster and placed it against her mouth ... pushing her lips apart" (p.79). When he finally decides that he has genuine feelings for her, it doesn't ring true. The muscein acts as a way for Delgado to release his suppressed feelings, but Sketchley chooses to tell us about Delgado's feelings using omniscient narration. The descriptions of his feelings seem spackled on.
Delgado eventually returns to Earth, and is forced to ally himself with a ragtag group—Lox, Bucky, Girl, Headman, and Clunk—seeking to overthrow Structure. The group lives in a futuristic, bombed-out shantytown. Humanity may have populated the stars, but on Earth, people are sealed within massive, depressing habitats. This section of the novel is actually one of the most exciting parts of the book, leading to a conclusion that I wouldn't have predicted.
The Affinity Trap starts and ends very strongly, but the middle section meanders and contains a few unresolved plot threads. On Elixiion, for instance, after Delgado takes part in an orgy, he meets a mysterious blonde woman. "There was something about her he liked; but it was something he was unable to pinpoint. This problem triggered some memory within him, but he could not access it." The woman also uses a "saying of a Drill Sergeant he had once had" (pp. 105-106). The thread is never really picked up again. Since The Affinity Trap is the first in a series, perhaps it will be resolved in a subsequent book.
Sketchley does take some genuine and admirable risks towards the end of the novel. I was also initially impressed that he chose to begin the book with necessary exposition instead of slam-bang action and lots of dialogue. First-time authors are sometimes discouraged from opening their novels with lots of exposition, and obviously Sketchley bucks the trend. The opening pages do an excellent job of establishing the setting and Delgado's character.
At the same time, I wish Sketchley had allowed us into Delgado's head instead of telling us about the emotional tug-of-war raging inside him; he is certainly deft at writing emotionally affecting scenes. Towards the end, he creates one of the most moving passages in the entire book, wherein Delgado sees one of the impoverished city-dwellers give birth to a stillborn baby. I look forward to Sketchley developing this talent in future novels. As for The Affinity Trap, if you're a fan of neo-pulpish plots in a gritty far-future setting, you won't be disappointed.
Mahesh Raj Mohan is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Sara Strohmeyer. He can be found on the web at http://moksh.blogspot.com.