Starbound by Haldeman, Joe, 2010

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A few years ago Joe Haldeman wrote a Heinlein-inspired coming-of-age novel about a young woman who traveled with her family to Mars where she became embroiled in an alien plot to control humanity. Carmen Dula, the young girl, became a pariah in the eyes of some, and a hero in the eyes of others when the conflict reached a head - ostensibly because of Carmen's failure - and the aliens struck out and nearly destroyed the Earth. Haldeman's newest novel is called Starbound. It's the first sequel to Marsbound and continues the story just shy of ten years after the end of the first book. The repressive governments of Earth have unified somewhat and become even more repressive out of fear of the Others; the aliens who attacked. To deal with the problem they have started constructing a fleet of warships to travel to a distant star called Wolf 25, the home of the Others. But in one last attempt at peace they have built the Ad Astra, an unarmed flying iceberg equipped with engines powered by Martian technology that is capable of traversing the 25 light years between Wolf 25 and Sol in twelve short years. Crewed by seven humans and two Martians, the people of Earth fear that the Ad Astra will reach Wolf 25 more like the Flying Dutchman than a ship of peace.

Starbound picked up just before the mission began. Assigned to the Ad Astra are Carmen and her husband Paul, "Moonboy" and his wife Meryl, and two Martians named Fly-In-Amber and Snowbird. At the last minute the United Nations added three spies: A soldier named Namir, a doctor named Elza and a doctor of philosophy named Bechner. The three new crew members were in a "triune," or a three way marriage. Elza, the only woman, was a nymphomaniac, and Bechner was a bit of a loner. Namir was the most interesting character in the whole book. He was a Mossad agent stationed in New York City when the first of two events happened in Israel. First a terrorist exploded a bomb in Israel that inflicted a nanite plague on every person in Israel. The nanites were activated when a bomb exploded later, and most of the people in Israel were killed. Unfortunately only part of this story was told from Namir's point of view. In fact, Haldeman used an annoying tactic to tell this story; he would switch to different character's point of view without warning or preamble. I found it a little confusing, searching for context to figure out who was providing the point of view, sometimes looking for pages even to discover the gender of that character. Much of the book was taken up with the voyage (actually the majority of the story was taken up with the interpersonal small-group shenanigans and bed swapping of ship-board life). The big question was how long it would take for the various characters to drive each other nuts. Unfortunately for them, it did not take too long at all; Moonboy (one of the most uninspired nicknames I've come across lately) went a little nuts on the way, beat up Elza, then went into a fugue state, only to be reawakened at the turnaround point in the journey (also the most convenient place for him to snap-to plot wise) when the Ad Astra was visited by "Spy," a humanoid construct and advance agent of the Others.

The hook in this series is that Earth is up against a race that has tremendous technological advances over us. That much was demonstrated in Marsbound in several ways, such as the manufacture of sentient races, and when the agent of the Others blasted from the moon of Triton at 25g, then detonated a cleverly hidden bomb that could have eliminated all life on Earth. They did no less in this book by creating yet another intelligent species of servant, then sending one of them, "Spy," to intercept the Ad Astra mid-journey, then by redesigning the ship so that it could finish the remaining three years of its six year outward journey in relative instantaneousness, so that no time passed at all for the crew of the ship, but all six years of that quarter of the journey passed for those in normal space. Once the Ad Astra was whisked away to Others' home system the crew was told how the Others evolved into super-powerful immortals. The Others also revealed that the placement of the bomb (at the end of Marsbound and the task of constructing the first FTL ship, the Ad Astra, were single-blind tests that the Others had administered to us, and that whatever we did next would determine the fate of humanity. Predictably The Others found us to be extremely dangerous, but also saw something in us worth saving. Not a novel idea, to say the least, and not executed by Haldeman in a novel way, but more on that later. As part of the process of inter-species understanding the Others took one Martian and one human crew member to join a focus group of sorts; a community of physically modified immortal made up of one member each of 250 other races that the Others had found and decided not to eliminate. These creatures minds had been removed from their original bodies and put into the methane cooled bio-machine carapaces of The Others, then allowed to become advisers to the rest of the race. The crew agreed of course, but they knew that once Moonboy and Fly-In-Amber joined the collective the Others would know about the attack fleet that was being constructed back around Earth. It was not too long before that did in fact happen. Once The Others found this out they destroyed every spacecraft in orbit around Earth, felled the space elevators that Earth had constructed, then destroyed the Moon completely and filled the space around Earth with small pebbles to keep humans on Earth. Apparently that message was not clear enough because the UN launched a spacecraft from Earth orbit to try to punch through. None too pleased with our ability to interpret subtle messages The Others destroyed our capability to use the advanced energy system that the Martians had given us (which in the twenty-five years since the Ad Astra began its mission had become the standard for power and energy on Earth), and left the entire planet in a permanent blackout.

So in the end here's what we had: An ill-defined, suicide mission against an enemy that could not be defeated that was manned by a bunch of miscreants, each of whom had some pretty big skeletons hidden away in their closets. Despite their potential none of the characters - save possibly for Namir, who was more draped in pathos then developed into a real man - were drawn well. I found what Haldeman did with Carmen to be particularly ham handed: Consider, the first book, Marsbound, was a coming of age novel; Carmen supposedly started coming of age in it. Haldeman could not risk losing that motif in this novel, probably because this was supposed to be a voyage of discovery. I guess he wanted to keep that feeling going. But enough years have passed that Carmen ain't a kid any more. So Haldeman did what he could to hold her back and keep her innocent. In the last book she fell in love with her husband and married him. At the beginning of this book the couple had their first couple of kids. Normally those experiences put a wrap on the coming-of-age process, so Haldeman contrived a sickness that Carmen caught in the last book so that it required artificial wombs to procreate. Carmen "had" a few kids, without the experiences of carrying them, who were then creche raised. Innocence preserved? Naivete believable? Nope. A noble effort, but a failure. Carmen came off like a confused adult instead of the semi-wise kid she was in Marsbound.

This book suffered a great deal from middle-child syndrome; I'm not so sure that it did anything that could not have been accomplished in the last book. The only real elements that were added here were the character of Namir, who might well be dead in the next book if as many years pass as did in this one, and a little bit of the story of the Others, with no weaknesses revealed. And honestly, I cannot fathom why the humans completely ignoring the overwhelming power of The Others. Not only are these people a bit stupid, but the government makes poor decisions without any consideration for consequences at all. It's obviously about our place in the cosmos, but it's thoroughly unoriginal, and miserably executed. Other than that Starbound was a space opera where Marsbound was more of a planetary romance, but I can't say that this novel was anything greater than a placeholder for the next installment of the tale, hopefully where the moronic people of Earth are wiped out and Carmen and Paul are allowed to make a new race of sensible people. If only. Not even Haldeman's trademark stoic sarcasm could save this thing. Workmanlike and forgettable, give this one a wide berth, or save it for when you're riding cross-country in the back of someone else's car, when the torture can be spread to other causes.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 1.5 star(s)


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