This book has pretty much everything: transparent aluminum from Star Trek IV, space boots from Star Trek VI, ATVs from classic Traveller, a Hunter straight out of Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, stellar maps from Starfire, and (most importantly) slide rules. Even better, there’s a solid reason for people having to use them out in space!
If you’ve wanted something along the lines of Firefly, but minus the unctuousness of Joss Whedon’s banter, then this is it. It’s basically several patron situations that can be dropped into any tramp free-trader themed campaign. But unlike the more static Traveller universe, there is plenty of areas in this novel’s setting marked “here there be dragons.”
It’s a great read. I almost didn’t get into it, though. In the first few chapters, I was sure that I’d picked up a book loaded with the usual Strong Female Character™ that is the standard premise in today’s adventure stories. It turned out to be not nearly as bad as I feared, though. (At the very least, the rest of the ensemble ends up taking the edge off of it.) But yeah, if you insist that a book of this sort features the second coming of John Carter, Conan, or Dumarest, you’ll want to pass on this one.
The depictions of space travel and starship economics here are first rate, however, and Karl Gallagher completely nails it:
“All hands, stand by for free-falling in thirty minutes. Free falling in three zero minutes.”
Bing stepped in front of the passengers as the announcement ended. “To keep our torch operating at peak efficiency we have to let it cool off periodically. We’ll be deploying the cooling wings, don’t worry if you hear a rattling sound. You won’t be able to see them from this window, which is a shame because they’re gorgeous. We’ll be coasting until the torch is ready to fire again. This gives you all a chance to practice zero-gee maneuvering before we get to Kronos.
And the setting! I hung on every nugget sized revelation that is peppered in and around the action. I think the author is strongest in his overall sense of when and how to convey the crucial details that make everything seem like a real universe. He always gives you enough context that you can grasp what is happening, but he keeps you hankering for more information.
If you’re looking for a Traveller-type background that fairly well makes sense, then this is it:
The judge had the defendant brought before her. “Jerome Bessem, you have been found guilty of endangering our society. By your knowing actions you have provided a garden that a random weed could sprout in. Such weeds ruined the home of our race. We must all stand watch and make sure that no places are left for such, because, as probes falling from the sky or corruption in our own software, they seek places they can grow. And growing, they will ruin our world and our lives as they ruined Earth and the lives of all who lived there. We must watch to be safe. You hid a safe place for an AI from our watching. You endangered our entire world. You must now pay the penalty for your crime, that by your example others will know to not follow your path. I grant you ten minutes for your farewells.”
The bailiffs parted to let the young man’s parents embrace him. The brief conversation seemed to consist of variations on “sorry” from both sides. Another team of bailiffs set up a contraption with a short white pillar in the center. When the time was up two large bailiffs took him by the arms and set him on the pillar. Clear panels rose up to surround him in a soundproof cylinder. He slumped against the side. Then a brief hum came from the machine as his body liquefied and drained into the tank below him. His mother fainted.
The last ingredient that really struck me was that this is one of the rare science fiction settings that includes reasonably accurate depictions of religious people. I’m so used to seeing real world faiths arbitrarily omitted from future histories, it really is a surprise to this side of human culture getting dealt with like this:
Mitchie wondered if the guests had been chosen by beard length. Bing handled introductions. “Rabbi Uri Orbakh, Rabbi Hyman Wortzman, Imam Majead Torkan, his wife Malak, and son Abdul.” Abdul had a few wisps on his chin and lip. His father looked like he’d never touched a razor. The rabbis had trimmed theirs to heart-high.
“So why do you want to go to Earth?” asked Guo. Billy passed out bowls of vegetable soup.
“Duty,” answered Majead. “One of the pillars of the Muslim faith is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a shrine on Earth. Few can do so in these times but when the opportunity appeared it would be sinful for me to decline.”
“It’s similar for us,” said Orbakh. “Each year we say ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ which is a city not far from Mecca. We decided we wanted to change it from a prayer to a promise.”
“Retroactively,” said Wortzman.
“Which one are you landing at?” asked Mitchie.
“Neither,” said Majead.
“We’re splitting the difference. We’ll land at the exact spot between them,” said Orbakh.
You know, this is real science fiction here. It’s exactly the sort of thing I gave up looking for in magazines and book stores a long time ago. My main quibble with it is that it’s just a notch too explicit for me to be able to pass it on to a twelve year old that’s devoured Citizen of the Galaxy. Of course, just in general I’m of the view that depictions of romance in adventure fiction have gone downhill since Leigh Brackett passed away. Today’s novelists necessarily face an uphill battle with me in that regard. Nevertheless, if contemporary authors are going to get me to look forward to reading science fiction published after 1980, this is the general course they need to set.