There is no doubt we are living in a second Golden Age of speculative fiction. The number of titles produced so high and spread across such a variety of sub-genres, in fact, it’s impossible for anyone to read all that comes available in science fiction and fantasy each month, let alone year. Quantity not often equaling quality, the bulk of new material is, unfortunately, superfluous. Where the majority of pulp from the 30s and 40s was lost to time, e-pulp of the current Golden Age is thus likely to go the same direction.
This is a long way of saying Daniel Polansky’s 2015 “The Builders” (Tor) is e-pulp. It has color and punch, but so quickly dissolves into nothing. Polanksy himself calling the novella a “one-note joke” derived from “adolescent sensibilities,” his story of gun-slinging animals who get revenge on a depraved city leader is as lite as speculative fiction gets.
Kung Fu Panda meets Mean Streets, “The Builders” features Bonsoir the wisecracking French stoat, Boudica the doe-eyed sniper possum, Cinnabar the quick-draw salamander, Barley the heavy-gunner badger, Gertrude mole, and Elf the lame owl who team up under the cool, calm guidance of the Captain (a disfigured mouse) to get their final revenge on evil Mephetic skunk. Bullets flying fast and furious against hordes of rats and lackeys, the Garden will never be the same.
What is the Garden? Well, that is a question for Polansky, as well. As simple and direct as plot and characters are, the setting is less so. The novella reads like a comic book without backgrounds to the panels. Characters and dialogue bubbles occupy the space, but almost nothing is added to provide a layer of atmosphere or mood beyond—save the stabs at humor; “…well, let’s just say creatures who voiced that misimpression tended not to do so ever again. Creatures who voiced that misimpression tended, generally speaking, not to do anything ever again.” Otherwise, the reader’s imagination has trouble locating a story canvas. Mine jumped from hints at Mexican deserts to glimpses of the backstreets of NYC, but never found anything concrete to lock onto, leaving me to wonder, what is the Garden? Comic books need a setting, just like this novella.
We can’t stop there, unfortunately; there are further issues with character and backstory. The introduction of each of the good guys is as classic as can be; dynamic mini-chapters are devoted to each as they converge, which works very well. In contrast, the baddies suddenly exist; a sentence here and a sentence there in introduction. Thus, when the inevitable showdown occurs, something is missing. The showdown precisely where tension exists in stories of such caliber, baddies need to occupy the page as fully as the goodies to complete the whole. Hurting worse, the novella’s backstory, despite being the nexus for Captain and his crew’s vendetta, is allowed to slowly peter out. Were it built up, it would have emphasized the reader’s dislike of the baddies, in turn further heightening the tension. Generally speaking, a good setup paves the way to other successes. But “The Builders’” lack thereof means by the time the climax arrives, there is only partial interest. And the prose, well, it could have used more bite implementing the storyteller’s voice to likewise build interest, but I digress.
As for the novella’s title, I don’t know to say except that I can think of a few better—not perfect, but better. “Captain’s Revenge,” “Tooth and Clawville,” “Vendetta in the Garden,” or “Fedoras and Fangs” all do a better job of capturing the essence of the material. Looking only at title, “The Builders” could be an educational cartoon on Nick Jr.
In the end, “The Builders” is at times a fun and funny gangster animal fantasy, while at others stereotypical Hollywood crime figures superimposed on animals spouting B-movie dialogue. It’s finishable. Polansky puts plenty of fire in pace and plot. But by and large, the novella fits right in with the other e-pulp currently being pumped out by mainstream genre publishing, which is too bad as there was potential for more. Another 30-40 pages would have rounded out character, backstory, and setting, and at least made a solid entry into the world of story attempted. For a significantly better example of how to do warring rodents with richness and character, see Brian Jacques’ delightful Redwall series.