Once upon a time, not so many decades ago, the major devices of sf — space travel, time travel, alternate worlds; aliens, telepaths, robots — were fresh and new, and to write sf was to be a pioneer.
These days, it's difficult to find even a minor device that's truly original; which can cause some concern about the state of sf. However, other branches of literature manage to thrive despite having gone over and over the same ground for centuries; it's a bit early to start worrying about sf.
And, indeed, sf seems to be in fine shape as long as people are still writing books like this. Colin Greenland feeds on influences such as Samuel Delany and Alfred Bester (and perhaps the film Dark Star), but what he comes up with has his own style, his own characters, and his own fairly complex plot.
His style is unmistakably British; still moderately unusual in an American-dominated field.
He's not a great prose stylist (though he does try, sometimes a little too hard); but there's nothing wrong with his imagination, and all he really has to do is to describe what he sees with it; which he can do more than competently.
What he sees is the future solar system from the point of view of one of its more lowly inhabitants. Tabitha Jute was born and brought up on the Moon, if you really must know; she doesn't much care to be reminded of it. She has little education and no outstanding abilities. Partly by luck, she's the proud owner of an elderly spacegoing barge with which she ferries freight around the solar system; when she can get a job, that is.
The human race as a whole has been rather demoralized by the arrival of a number of alien races, all with better-than-human technology and some with better-than-human intelligence, but mostly rather unpleasant as individuals. The solar system from Tabitha's point of view is sometimes colourful but often rather squalid, like city life as we know it but more so.
Intrigue is brewing and she gets sucked into it, by accident and entirely against her will, becoming involved with a small troupe of travelling freaks who put on a cabaret act as a front for more shady activities; the true nature of what's going on becomes apparent only very gradually. In the course of her rather painful and uncomfortable adventures, we discover that this very ordinary woman has considerable determination under pressure, is instinctively kind to people when she's not in a bad temper, and comforts her ship — the Alice Liddell — by telling it stories. The ship likes stories, though it would be even more grateful for some urgent repairs and proper maintenance.
Tabitha is slovenly and sometimes rude, but likeable in her own way, and generally believable as a character.
The story is somewhat uneven: there are parts that don't ring true and should have been rewritten. The business with the Capellans near the end reads more like a comic than a novel. However, these are relatively minor flaws. It's a colourful and original work of imagination.
Although I admire the book in principle, I give it only two stars because (a) it does have some defects and (b) in practice I don't enjoy it enough to reread it often.
Originally published in Thurb 23 in February 1992