This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
My final week of reviewing for the #SPSFC and Team Space Lasagna brought me Stars Forever Black, book 1 of the Star Lion Saga, by A. L. Bruno.
This Star Trekkian first contact story with a twist started out fun-and-simple and got steadily more intriguing and compelling as it went along. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of first contacts between different sentient species, whether it’s humans meeting aliens or humans-as-aliens – Stars Forever Black manages to package both together, as well as creating an actually complex and realistic alien culture that is still recognisable.
I was reminded of an episode of The Orville, where the crew runs into a human-like civilisation in the middle of a social media culture-meltdown. The Phelspharians are just on the cusp of their own social media event horizon, but it provides a perfect looking-glass into the real world and our present-day issues with trust, information, and communication. I was hooked from the start.
Issues with Phelspharian opinions of translation machines and interpreters leave first contact and diplomatic relations in the hands of relatively junior officer and known hothead Lt. Commander Jason Roberts, who was the only guy to put much effort into learning the language in the 18 months the research vessel spent in orbit, studying the Phelspharians and their budding global civilisation. With complicated alien traditions and values to contend with, to say nothing of his belligerent-arse shipmates and the occasional interstellar war flashback, Roberts has to navigate his own people to a peaceful cooperative level with the scared, backward Phelspharians.
Oh yeah, he has war flashbacks. Full-blown, sound-of-space-choppers, space-venetian-blind-shadows-across-the-face war flashbacks, and they’re actually not hackey or boring … in fact can I just take this opportunity to petition the science fiction community to rename them Venusian blinds for the purposes of the space-war-flashback trope? Thank you. Petition lodged. Let’s get back to it.
Things are not what they seem, on the planet below or in the depths of space above, and Roberts’s crew are caught in between as a long-dormant war re-erupts and they are tasked with preparing the hapless Phelspharians to become a part of it.
Throughout the story I was picturing Conrad as the Bajoran, Shaxs, in Star Trek: Lower Decks. Oh well. He could have done worse out of the whole thing.
The leader of the Phelspharians’ emergent worldwide cooperative of nations is a mediator known as the Kionel, an old warrior hero of old whose title has been rebranded as that of a diplomat, a sort of international ombudsman. It’s a very cool idea and there is a lot more going on under the surface, but the important thing is I got to use the word ombudsman. Twice!
This story has everything I have always found fascinating and fun about first contact scenarios. I was endlessly amused at the way Roberts recognises an alien media pundit and gets excited. The various Phelspharian media personalities, from the John Oliver / comedy news format analogue to the solemn yet division-mongering conservative analogue, are amazingly done. I was pulled out of the story briefly by a joking line about “central casting” that seemed a bit too Earth-specific considering the sheer quantity and quality of work Bruno put into making the rest of Phelspharia distinctly un-Earthlike, but I shook it off and jumped right back in.
We skip back and forth between several key player points of view, seeing some of the Soviet-esque working class and the propaganda, espionage and secret police actions that are taking place out of sight of the media and their focus on the aliens. It very effectively built tension, and managed to avoid the trap that jumping point-of-view often falls into – specifically that each arc gets cut off and the reader groans and is tempted to skip the next couple of chapters to get back to the cliffhanger on the original thread. Each thread was equally weighted and compelling, and that’s pretty fucking impressive.
I enjoyed all the depth and detail that went into this story at every level, from the beautiful complexity of Phelspharia’s nations and cultures, to the wider and largely-unexplored backstory of Terra (Earth) and the fragile interplanetary union to which it belongs. I liked the little hints we saw, like the reference to Terra’s nano-based physiological alteration experiments. And like I said, heck, I even liked Roberts’s war flashbacks. They were well crafted, gut-wrenching, and relevant to the story that was unfolding.
I confess I did wonder at one point how much longer I would be required to feel sorry for Conrad because the radiation therapy he got for being a hero had made him into a big fat idiot. Because he really was a big fat idiot for a lot of the book. Still, he got better. There was a moderately preachy message about social media in the form of a We Are Not So Different, Your People And Mine speech, but fuck it all, it worked. Trek at its best, and in a lot of ways Bruno surpassed the format – as one can, given a novel to work with rather than a 45-minute screenplay. One can, but one does not necessarily always do. Bruno did. Excellent job.
We are treated to a bit of tasteful pan-away sex. That’s about it. I predicted within a couple of pages of their introduction to one another that Roberts and Nashita were totally gonna Kirk, but that inevitability was left for the next book. Still nailed it, it counts, prediction stands. I’ll give this a … well, a Benjamin Sisko out of a possible James Kirk, I suppose. Makes sense. Moving on.
Stars Forever Black has got some brutality on it. Nasty soviet-style beatings and related violence, a terrorist machete-ing with massive tissue and organ damage, and some truly ghastly space-war flashbacks. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
There are mysteries still to solve, but they’re not so much pure WTF as solid, high-performance reader-bait. What secrets are the Phelspharians and their Kionel still hiding? What’s going to happen with the oncoming war and the approaching Terran ships? How did this planet-full of early-21st-Century-analogous humans happen anyway? I can only hope the answers aren’t disappointing. I give it a Moriarty reprogramming the holodeck to contain a replica of the Enterprise out of a possible Q continuum.
My Final Verdict
Towards the end of the book we are treated to perhaps the best hocus pocus traditional interpretive dance mythos presentation I think I’ve ever seen in any medium. I was kind of expecting the “stars forever black” line to be in there, but it was left to interpretation a bit. I genuinely cared, and teared up, and got myself a frisson with the ending. The various character interactions were so exciting to read, and so satisfying in their conclusions. I loved the conclusion and I have to read more. Five stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, will definitely continue reading series.
Pingback: SPSFC: Quarterfinalists