Humanity in the year 2071 is straining at the limits of terrestrial and solar sustainability. With billions of people placing a demand on Earth's finite resources, an outlet is needed. Robot probes have identified planets in other systems capable of supporting human life. But before they can be colonized they must be proven - a high-risk prospect. Enter the Expendables: a group of highly talented criminals and misfits who combine technical expertise in their chosen fields with checkered pasts. Led by James Conrad, a former commander in the United Nations Space Service, they are sent out to explore Kratos, the first viable planet discovered by the probes. Yet not only must the team determine the planets viability as a colony for humans, they must also answer an additional question - just who or what left the large ruts scarring the planet's surface?
Edmund Cooper (who published this novel under the pen name "Richard Avery") was a British author whose wide-ranging oeuvre included a number of science fiction novels. This book was the first of a four-book series that he wrote in the mid-1970s in which his team would face various challenges on an Earth-like world. In many ways this is the best of the quartet, as Cooper couples his pulp action here with pages spent laying out his premise and developing his characters into distinct figures rather than leaving them as interchangeable cardboard cutouts. His themes of sustainability and resource deprivation, a growing concern in the years in which he wrote this, gives his book an air of prescience for readers today, helping to separate it from similar sci-fi novels of its ilk.
Yet these strengths sit uncomfortably with dialogue and situations that can seem somewhat racist and sexist to readers today. Cooper's fans have credited him for populating his crew with a diverse group of people, yet the novel seems dated with the degree to which they oftentimes dwell on their racial backgrounds. No character embodies this better than Kurt Kwango. The team ecologist, he is credited with being the smartest member of the group and is often at the heart of the action (he's not even the first character to die). Yet he seems obsessed with race to a degree more befitting someone of the 20th century than Cooper's supposedly more enlightened future. It's a problem that detracts from what it otherwise an enjoyable sci-fi adventure, making it more a product of its time than one that, like many of the best works of the genre, rises above it to become a truly timeless work.