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Starbound by Joe Haldeman
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441018178
Date: 05 January 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

One of the long standing themes of SF has been the omniscient alien race that's judging humanity, typically to find us wanting. In Joe Haldeman's Starbound, humanity narrowly escapes being wiped off the face of the Earth, then immediately builds a starship to travel to the Other's homeworld and ask them if they really meant it, or could we all just get along. The answer will and won't surprise you, but what's not unexpected is that Haldeman has some new ideas about our place in the cosmos and how we fit in.

Carmen Dula is the Mars Girl, who fell through a lava crust one day on Mars, and discovered Martians living right next door to the human colony, only they'd been there a few thousand years longer than we had. They're not really Martians though, but a biological equivalent of Clarke's monolith in 2001. They're watchers created specifically to keep an eye on humanity and when the time came, to deliver a message to us from their creators, the Others.

The Others aren't a warm fuzzy bunch, and the message isn't especially long or helpful...but it does come with a bomb that would wipe out all life on Earth, or would have if the Martian who was supposed to deliver it hadn't realized what it was and gotten off the planet before it blew up.

At just about the same time, a spacecraft took off from the solar system on a line towards Tau Ceti and at an acceleration that would have made jello out of humans.

So Earth builds a starship out of a fusion motor and a comet's head, tacks a life support module on it and crews it with Carmen, her pilot husband Paul, exobiologists Moonboy and his wife Meryl, and a trio of spooks that happen to be married to each other, and send it off in the direction of the alien spacecraft to ask if peaceful coexistence is such a bad idea. Much mate swapping occurs to fight the boredom of a six year trip that will probably end in death. Shades of Heinlein.

Meanwhile, back in solar space, we're building an armada of warships. The only problem being that we're so outclassed by the Others that about all we can expect of the fleet is that it will piss off the aliens.

What ensues is familiar territory for SF readers. A long voyage with a seven person crew, along with two of the Martians, in a sealed box where sexual shenanigans and gardening are the highlights of the trip. All against a backdrop of fatalism as the ship heads towards its rendezvous with destiny.

The story's narrative moves between a subset of the total cast, alternating chapters to bat perspectives back and forth. An interesting ploy used by the author is to make us figure out contextually which character is speaking, which is never especially hard, but you do have to pay attention to figure it out. Carmen's character is one of the most fully realized, along with Nadia, a former Israeli intelligence officer who lived through a terrorist act that killed three quarters of all Jews, and still threatens the survivors. Although the three spooks are fairly interesting characters, their secret agent skills are pretty much wasted in this book. So are most everyone's actually, as the explorers' talents are called on just to keep from going crazy in the close quarters, and only doing a marginal job of that.

Having eschewed suspended animation for his deep space diplomats as a technology within human reach, he ultimately falls back on alien super-science to compress the voyage. The brief explanation he gives for the dodge is both plausible and vague, assuring the humans that it's beyond their ken, which obviates any contradictions in the super-science, but in the end it's merely a merciful cheat to keep from having to chronicle the entire twelve year span.

The sub-genre of stories where powerful aliens decide the fate of humankind takes up a substantial segment of the SF pie, from early pieces like Madeleine D'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time and Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel to the Clarke/Baxter Time's Eye trilogy. Haldeman's never been one to pull his punches, so you're legitimately kept in suspense waiting to find out what the future has in store for us. The answer owes more to Snake Plisken's sensibilities than Heinlein's, but that's been true of the author's leaning since The Forever War.

Of the ending, as I said in the preamble, it's expected and unexpected, and it would be interesting to see a second book that follows the outcome. If the book leaves off here, it will feel unfinished to me, and unfortunately the author isn't known for his sequels or series, so we probably have to figure it out for ourselves.

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