I finally finished reading the massive 957-page sci-fi book Stardown Bullets by new writer Joseph Black (who is only a few months older than me, making my lack of success at novel writing all the more bitter — OK, not really).
Overall, I think this may very well be the best science fiction book I’ve ever read.
The book takes place in the far future in which, through a few pages of expository techno-babble, a good chunk of humanity has left Earth and colonized two planets in some other solar system, one planet more naturally habitable than the other. The planets are occasionally temporarily connected through what the characters call a “star bridge” which is this gigantic weird energetic bendy tube which can phase in and out of existence depending on the location of the planets in their orbits. Again, there was some techno-babble about how this was possible — I won’t even try to sum it up — if you’re of a more scientific mind, you might be able to understand it. I just thought “yeah, whatever” and went on with the story. Anyway, due to the planets’ orbits, the star bridge can only exist for 12 days every two Earth-years. (On a side note, how the book deals with time on these alien planets is completely confusing. They use Earth years and Earth hours, but just about everything else — days, weeks, months — are different and have a bunch of confusing names, making you wish the book had an appendix or something.) Whenever the star bridge forms, people can quickly travel between the planets and send cargo back and forth. Quick as in almost-the-speed-of-light-quick. Without the bridge, travel between the planets takes several years.
The fading in and out of the star bridge has been going on for seventy-some years when the story starts with little trouble, but mysterious holes begin to open up, and cargo and travelers are sucked out into space. A team of researchers from each planet is sent to investigate, and until they can figure out what’s going on, the star bridge is closed, causing many economic and political problems for both planets.
The story mainly follows Todd Ackerman, one of the researchers. He thinks that the holes are created by humans in some kind of elaborate conspiracy which he decides to unveil. But as he digs deeper and deeper into the many layers of the organizations that run the star bridge, he discovers that things are not so simple as evil vs non-evil. I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say that most of the clues and discoveries regarding the holes seem really sinister in the first half of the book, then do a complete 180 by the end in rather surprising fashion.
What really makes the story work for me, though, is not the complicated spy-adventure, though that itself is very enjoyable. No, it’s the characterization of Todd; the author makes him surprisingly sympathetic. Even when I didn’t agree with what he was doing, I could completely understand why he was doing it, and was always hoping he would succeed. And, actually, most of the time he did exactly what I would’ve. Also, the author makes it quite clear that when Todd is in danger, even though you know he’s not going to die, there are things worse than death, and they can and do happen. So every time it felt like danger was lurking, I was truly on the edge of my seat, hoping the author wouldn’t be too mean to any members of the cast. A lot of times in movies and such you get characters who you can tell are just there to die. In this book, anyone (well, except for Todd) is under the knife. That said, no death feels random. You know what characters are risking death, and when, so it’s just a matter of reading on and finding out.
The book changes pace a lot too. Sometimes I flew through a hundred pages at break-neck speed because danger was lurking, things were being discovered, and I just had to know what would happen next. Other times, there are long info-dumps which are sometimes interesting, sometimes too techno-babbly for me. The descriptions of the fantastical sci-fi cities and how they were built to deal with the strange alien planets’ conditions I found to be very captivating and imaginative; the author definitely put a lot of thought and care into making them staggeringly different than what we see here on Earth, yet completely plausible.
By the end of it, you see that there’s a wonderful theme flowing through the story about loving your enemies, loving yourself, and not caring what anyone thinks of you. Well, it sounds cheesy written out like that, but played out in the story it works really well. And it’s pretty subtle; I expect some readers may miss it in the heat of the action sequences, and the author never lets even Todd have any extended inner-dialogues. But the themes are still there in the collection choices that Todd and the other characters make.
Again, overall, it was a fantastic read. Unfortunately it’s not part of a series or anything, but I’ll definitely be looking out for Joseph Black’s next novel. I think he’ll be one of most popular sci-fi writers in the coming decades.