Altered Starscape – Conflict of Disinterest

26001236Hey there readers, I’m Alex, a new guest poster here at The Quill To Live, and boy do I have a treat for you. I recently read Altered Starscape: Andromeda Dark Book One by Ian Douglas of Star Carrier fame. Altered Starscape follows one Lord Commander St. Clair, a naval officer within the newly proclaimed United Earth Directorate, as he leads his crew to set up an embassy at the galactic center- a super massive black hole. Upon arrival, an attack blows up the space station and the blast throws the Tellus Ad Astra (the ship) and its crew into the black hole. In ways that can only be explained by some science, it throws them four billion years into the future, where the majority of their time is spent encountering the mysterious enemy, known only as the “Andromedan Dark.”

The story itself is a military space adventure, following the crew as they discover a breadcrumb trail of interstellar coordinates left behind by another species. As they reach each location, the crew finds several wondrous and derelict superstructures. Most of these were variations on the Dyson sphere, a construct that encapsulates a star. As the ship approaches the objects, the size grabs the reader’s imagination. However, upon landing on the artifacts, the language employed leaves the reader wanting, destroying any sense of awe I had. Too many of these discoveries were shoved into a short span to evoke any sort of fascination or make the reader feel small.  There was no sense of human scale, as the environment becomes uninteresting scenery where the marines  engage in battle. With a little time and some flourish, these landscapes could have been unforgettable. Instead, they’ll continue to float in space, and the reader couldn’t care less.

The few scenes of action that do take place are exciting. Especially important is Douglas’ ability to illustrate the chaos of the scene without getting lost. While not as engaging as some other military science fiction I’ve read, the story is built on clear action with a good amount of frenetic tension. There were moments of confusion, distress, and triumph that blended together in a satisfying way. The enemy’s otherworldly ability to appear out of nowhere using the fourth dimension was a delightful addition that made the conflict more exciting as well.  However, as the story pushed on, I was less and less engaged as it became apparent that the Dark’s sole motivation was mere domination. Each successive battle felt like there was less on the line, instead of ratcheting up to a climactic battle that sets the stage for future books.

Another positive aspect of the book is Douglas’ willingness to talk science. Black holes, fourth and onwards dimensions, spacetime, faster than light travel- you name it, this book probably mentions it somewhere. Luckily, Douglas spends a decent amount of time trying to explain the theory, even working to break it down so that the reader can follow along. Because St. Clair is no scientist, he relies on his crew to explain, allowing the reader to feel included. To me, this is Douglas’ strongest skill in this book, even though he makes a bad habit of explaining after the fact.

Douglas doesn’t only depend on the latest scientific theories to tell his story, but frequently turns to other science fiction writers’ ideas. Unfortunately it never feels like a tribute, as the book descends into a show of one-upmanship.  Douglas builds his world on concepts introduced by the likes of Asimov and Niven.  Instead of accepting the fictional worlds they created, however, he uses them as a jumping-off point to promote what he believes to be his own shinier, more streamlined ideas.  The book also tends to follow in the tradition set forth by Heinlein. As if it were an ode to Starship Troopers, Douglas blends military action with musings on the nature of civic responsibility and personal liberty. Regrettably, the book read more like an self serving update to the genre, rather than an expansion of science fiction.

As I continued to read the book, I became painfully aware of its incompleteness. Douglas rarely spends the time necessary to polish his ideas. From his history of robots to the establishment of the imperial United Earth Directorate, I never felt that any major theme or idea in the book was satisfactorily explored. Everything was the beginning of something that turned out to be nothing, which was disappointing. While it makes sense to set a foundation in book one of a series, everything felt unfinished in a “project due tomorrow” sort of way. On top of that, all these small parts served as reminders to the reader that they are, in fact, reading a science fiction book.

Altered Starscape continues to fall apart from there. It’s hard to discern what the point of the book actually is. Is it just a military sci fi romp? Is it a discussion of freedom within an inherently rigid societal structure? Is it a sightseeing tour of a future universe we can only begin to imagine? These are several of many questions that never get answered. It also doesn’t help that our point of view is very limited. As the book is written in the third-person, following mostly St. Clair, every scene feels tinted and in some ways tainted by the main character’s perception. St. Clair’s feelings set the standard for every character’s  feelings and the tone for every interaction, regardless of his involvement in the scene. The narration is intended to be taken at face value, hiding nothing about St. Clair’s intentions, and offering no alternative perspective.

This problem is only compounded early in the book, where the entirety of chapter five is devoted to St. Clair’s political and personal views. St. Clair’s worldview consists mainly of notions of individual freedom, a dislike of concentrated power, and distrust of those willing to use that power. The bluntness with which they are unveiled shades future interactions between St. Clair and his peers. The rare times when St. Clair engages with his dissenters were lectures, not conversations.  These diatribes occur at different times throughout the book, and never feel like they are a part of the plot. On top of that, there is very little nuance in these interactions. It was disengaging, as no character really had an ability to dialogue with the protagonist. This distance is further solidified by the fact that St. Clair’s convictions are never truly tested, almost making them pointless.

Gunter Adler is particularly illustrative of these interactions.   Adler, the leader of the civilian portion of the Tellus Ad Astra, is portrayed as a sniveling man who flexes his power to enrich himself under the guise of civic duty.  In contrast to St. Clair’s unquestioned stability and virtue, Adler is shown to be weak of mind and spirit through his inability to act in the interest of anyone but himself.  In keeping with the superficial nature of their relationship, Adler spends most of his time belittling St. Clair without actually challenging the substance of what St. Clair says.  Had Douglas added weight to Adler’s character through deeper conversations, he would have also added dimension to St Clair as well. Instead the reader just gets to enjoy the show without witnessing any moral consequences of these leaders’ decisions.

In the end, I just couldn’t enjoy this book. Unfortunately for Douglas, I’m a tenacious little bastard and powered through, trying to enjoy the little bits of the book that felt like they belonged to a larger narrative. Even though it’s clearly written with the intention to continue as a series, Douglas just tried to do too much with very little space. The characters never felt fully fleshed out. Even St. Clair only felt characterized to the point of relatable, but reluctant hero. After the initial politics were outlined, I read it out of spite. While there is still so much more to discuss, I will end this here for fear of this review turning into a political rant. I recommend this book only to people who aren’t concerned by their personal politics or those who want to read it in spite, to discuss it afterwards.

Verdict : 4.5 out 10

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