Even an experienced reviewer can make mistakes, and I’m not above admitting my own fallibility. I started Slave Trade thinking I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting: lots of thrusting and juddering and heaving, your typical dose of smutty softcore masquerading as sci-fi. I mean, what was I supposed to think after reading the jacket copy? “The idea that human sex slaves were a luxury item throughout the galaxy was just too ridiculous to take seriously – until Rose found herself, along with hundreds of other captives, bound for the far reaches of space, and compelled to cater to the depraved desires of her new alien masters.” Oh, please, Captain X’dong, don’t hurt me! My, what a big laser gun you have…
Imagine my disappointment, then, when this, the first in the forthcoming Slave Trade Trilogy, proved to be nothing but PG-13 blandness that even the horniest of twelve-year-old Trekkies would toss aside in disgust. I wasn’t counting on having to remember the details of the plot, figuring that the story would just be a flimsy pretext for lots of filthy human-alien boot-knocking, but here’s my best attempt at a synopsis.
Rose Rico is a spoiled, privileged teenager living in futuristic Tijuana with her estranged sexpot mom, who’s a high-ranking official with the interplanetary entity known as the Domain. At a trashy nightclub, Rose’s lover, Bolt, takes her to a secret hideout – your typical secret-knock, eyes-peering-through-door-slit deal – and introduces her to a couple of members of the Underground, a revolutionary movement organized to fight the steady, mysterious stream of human disappearances. It’s a given that humans disappear all the time, and nobody seems to know or care much about it; but when a friend of Rose’s vanishes, Rose finally confronts her mother about the Domain’s possible involvement. Rose’s mom flips out and nearly disowns her, but Rose is still suspicious. Back at the club, Rose goes to the secret hideout again with Bolt, realizing belatedly that he’s ratted her out and sold her to the aliens. Dim lights. Cue thumping bass line and disco ball.
Regaining consciousness, Rose finds herself buck-naked in a transparent cube, along with hundreds of other men and women in a similar plight. Wright somehow manages to make this totally unsexy; perhaps it’s the fact that the place is a Bedlam of shrieking voices, or maybe it’s the fact that people die off like flies from sheer fright, their bodies cleared away at infrequent intervals. After a while, a couple of aliens come in and grab Rose and a few other humans. She goes through a decontamination process, gets a high-tech shock collar around her neck, and she’s off for her first assignment. In this universe, humans are passed around from hand to hand like tattered Playboys, each time a little stickier and a little less appealing. High-ranking aliens, called Alphas, get their own permanently assigned slaves as perks. When the human sex slaves are all worn out, they’re killed off; since this creates a constant demand for fresh specimens, humans (a.k.a. “Solians”) are quietly smuggled off Earth en masse to meet the universe’s needs.
Well, Rose just won’t stand for this kind of crass, vile exploitation. Beneath her indolent-Latina-teen exterior lurks the heart of a true heroine, and Rose discovers an inner wellspring of strength, courage, and cunning as she begins to fight back. Working with her fellow slaves, and playing one alien race against another, Rose devises a wild plan to take over the slave ship and win everyone’s freedom. Can they survive the insurrection? And if they do, where can a shipload of collared slaves hide from the all-powerful Domain? Fortunately, not all aliens are cruel, domineering slaveholders; some of them are nice, benevolent slaveholders. Rose will need all the friends she can make if she wants to earn her freedom and return to Earth.
Like many a trilogy's Part I, this book tries too hard to cram all the relevant information into a few hundred pages, and the plot has no chance to develop organically. Slave Trade is so busy stuffing explanatory asides and exposition into its characters’ mouths that there’s no time left for sloppy, salacious, titillating interspecies dawdling – which, let’s face it, is what we’re all here for. There’s the usual assortment of brightly colored aliens, but not much context as to how the races relate, or the origin and structure of the Domain, or…anything, really. The Domain’s ships are all named after abstruse concepts like Purpose and Pertinence, which makes them incredibly difficult to keep straight.
Rose is your typical fiery, smartmouthed, resourceful action-adventure heroine, always in trouble because of her wisecracking but always able to cook up a half-baked plan that, against all odds, works. Beyond that – surprise, surprise – she doesn’t have much of a personality. More interesting is Ash, a genetically twiddled hermaphrodite bred in captivity as a human slave. As a special bonus for the long-suffering reader, Wright creates a new pronoun especially for hermaphrodites, along with the usual sappy moralizing: “S/he realized that there was a core inside of hirself that was so protected that it couldn’t be touched. It was that part of hirself that longed to survive in spite of everything that happened to hir. Even when circumstances were horrible, it was glorious to be alive.” Every time I saw one of these made-up words, I winced. I had a whole lot of wincing to do before I was finished, believe me.
The writing is terrible, too, riddled with ham-fisted sentimentality and sloppy grammar like “as of yet” and “different than,” but I’d expect no better from writing of this genre. What really disappoints me is that the one thing I was expecting, I didn’t get. Not one human-alien sex scene! Even consensual same-species relations were only coyly alluded to after the fact. Put away your metallic jumpsuits and alien masks, boys and girls; Slave Trade will set your stun gun to BOREDOM.