Never in my life did I think I’d enjoy a book about accounting adventures on a distant planet, but if anyone can change my mind, it’s D.J. Butler.
In Abbott in Darkness, John Abbott is drowning in academic debt, but has a solid chance to pay it off through his new job with the interstellar Sarovar Company. Trouble is, that company operates in a solar system forty light-years from Earth, and he and his family have given up everything just to get there. He has to make this job work, or else they’ll be stranded light-years from home with little hope of ever going back.
But making the job work will be more dangerous than anyone expected.
John might be a humble forensic accountant, and he might have been assigned to secretly investigate corruption and theft at an isolated outpost—but the trouble he uncovers is far more complex than simple careless greed. It’s a plot that could shake human presence on this planet to its core, and thus his family with it. With those kinds of stakes, leaving the problem for someone else just isn’t an option—but none of the solutions presented are simple ones, and soon John must decide whether he wants to do what’s best for his family … or do the right thing.
It should be noted: Epic space opera and rip-roaring adventure, Abbott in Darkness is not, so set those genre expectations aside right now. What Abbott in Darkness is is a refreshingly grounded science fiction novel that takes a realistic look at what it might be like to uproot one’s family to the other side of the galaxy, and then have to deal with the ramifications of a political situation one didn’t even know to expect. There is resultant action and adventure—and parts of the novel are quite intense—but it’s not adventure sci-fi so much as the tale of a normal guy trying to make his way through a potentially deadly situation using normal guy means, and the way it balances these elements makes it one of my favorite novels of the year.
On the sci-fi end, Butler has crafted a planet that is both familiar enough to support Earthly life, but alien enough to seem genuinely foreign—especially in terms of the aliens themselves. The Sarovar Company’s success in the solar system hinges upon the production of Sarovari Weave, an intensely durable fabric produced by the native Weavers. From a human perspective, the Weavers are familiar only in that they’re vaguely crab like; they are barely capable of human language, with mouths only able to form simple words in the local pidgin, such that all trade is conducted through combinations of pidgin and pantomime.
Sarovari Pidgin itself plays a substantial role in the novel, too; since John eventually wants to make his fortune as a trader in Weave, he naturally must become versed in the language—and it ends up having lifesaving usefulness when his investigation leads him to have several dangerous run-ins with some Weavers. It’s not merely a cosmetic conlang, either. There was a part of the climax where I had to keep zipping back and forth between the page and glossary to keep up with the specifics of what was going on, and I loved seeing the language put to such essential use. (There were context clues in the scenes, of course, but anyone who’s familiar with my reviews by this point knows that I would shoot fictional languages into my veins if it were not more practical to just, you know, read them. 😂)
Avoiding spoilers, by the end, the entire book hinges upon John’s ability to wield this language (if inexpertly), gain a new and thus-far-unheard-of understanding of the Weavers’ needs and challenges, and bend all those things under the power of compromise. It’s an exciting book, and there are some wildly exciting and heroic moments near the end, but the heart of the book’s conflict is solved by unexpected (nonviolent) means, and this was one of the things I enjoyed most about it.
Another of my favorite elements is how present John’s family is in the story. It’s very easy for novels of this nature to say “The hero arrived with his family” and then push the family off to the background so the protagonist can do hero stuff—but John’s wife Ruth, his daughters Ellie and Sunitha, and even the family dog Animoosh are all visible and active elements in the story. Ruth is a stalwart pillar of support in John’s life, unafraid to ask pointed questions when necessary, and their precocious, curious daughters provide a vehicle by which to transmit useful exposition to the reader, while also charming the reader—while also reminding John of what he’s fighting to protect, especially when subtle dangers began to creep into the mundane corners of their lives.
There are more than a few scenes where the family gets involved in the dangerous action—namely during a field trip gone awry, and especially during the second half of the climax—and seeing them work together for survival as a unit without becoming an adventure movie stereotype became one of the most delightful elements of the novel (once I got my heart rate back down).
Finally, John himself is an admirable regular guy hero, fiercely loyal to his family—but also the sort of man who will look situations that benefit them in the face and ask “Is this right?” The Sarovar Company’s presence in the Sarovar solar system is one predicated on the Weave trade, rather than imperial expansion of territory, but in the course of his investigation, John uncovers some problems that echo those that usually emerge in the process of colonization. The Company doesn’t interact much with Weavers outside of trade, so they’re not being actively exploited—but non-Company-affiliated human residents (which are something of a mystery in themselves) tend to be denied opportunities to succeed in the same way Company transplants do, in a way that ensures John’s own earnings stay high, and also contributes to one of the many complex conflicts bubbling under the surface of this generally quiet world. The company’s reasoning isn’t nefarious so much as practical, but it is a situation that makes someone with John’s moral character take a step back and say, “There has to be a solution where all parties can benefit without harming each other”—and then use the resources at his disposal to seek it out when all the conflicts threaten to bubble into actual violence.
John Abbott is very much a character who doesn’t want to be a hero, but sees when things need to be done and takes it upon himself to do them. That he does so while struggling with the complex morality of it makes him an even stronger character, and frankly one I’d like to see more of in fiction in general.
All this to say, Abbott in Darkness is a refreshingly grounded tale of a common family facing the worst on a planet far from home, and rising to the occasion. It’s a must-read for fans of reluctant heroes in extraordinary situations.