Starfire, Charles Sheffield

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 401 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37894-5

Is it possible for a sequel to be… better… than the original?

Depends on what you mean by sequel. It’s certainly more reasonable to assume that books planned from the onset to be a sequel to a first volume (say, as part of the series) has chances to be more ambitious than the first volume than a book cooked a few years later as a sequel to an initially stand-alone novel. Compare cinema with literature on this point, and after you’ve compared HIGHLANDER 2 with, say, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, I’ll rest my case. (Though XENOCIDE could be compared with SUPERMAN III and set off a whole new debate.)

I was not a big fan of Charles Sheffield’s Aftermath. Partly because it felt more like a disaster novel than science-fiction, partly because it was filled with unsympathetic characters that spent their time discussing various sexual dysfunctions, partly because, frankly, it just wasn’t very interesting. Aftermath, however, was obviously the first volume in a series; the ending, with its last-minute curveball, seemed explicitly designed to whet readers’ expectations.

I happened, a year later, to grab Starfire off my local library’s shelves. No sense in spending money to read a sequel to a book I didn’t really like.

Surprisingly, even though I can’t really say that Starfire is all that good, it’s certainly more interesting and more enjoyable than its prequel.

For one thing, it certainly feels closer to science-fiction than the previous volume. At the end of Aftermath, scientists discovered that they had twenty-five years to prepare a shield to protect them from a serious particle storm headed for Earth. In Starfire, the twenty-five years are up and the final elements of the shield race to completion before the storm hits. But, ah-ha, things suddenly look much worse than previously; the particle storm arrives earlier than expected, packs more punch, and faces a shield that’s dogged by budgetary constraints and sabotage. Seems like, as usual in hard-SF, wacky religious groups just keep wanting the end of Earth.

As if that wasn’t enough, most of the essential robots of the shield project are controlled by a maniacal dwarf (is there any other kind of dwarf, I ask?), who sends a traitorous woman (is there…?) to seduce a straight-laced engineer (is there…?) Even better; to solve a series of murders on a space station, a shadowy operative contacts a genius ex-serial murderer. (Now, you know that all serial murderers are geniuses.)

A lot of stuff, mostly already seen elsewhere, but it keeps things moving at a decent pace. The constant sexual obsession of the first volume is considerably toned down and even though some characters approach cliché, it does seem as if they’re a rather more pleasant bunch than in the previous book.

The details are a mixed bunch. As could be expected from a scientist/hard-SF writer like Sheffield, the science is adequate even though the “one single smart scientist figures it all out” cliché is once again taken for a walk. The political details, however, sound naive and far too convenient, a flaw shared by many similar novels. Political unlikeliness isn’t the only type of doubtful developments in Starfire, however; the whole ending (along with the dinosaur stuff) struck me as essentially preposterous.

But, even though Starfire isn’t too good, it lends itself to a quick reading, and represents a step up from its predecessor. Unfortunately, it still represents another sub-par novel from Sheffield, who’s shown himself capable of both the best and the worst, often in successive books. Certainly, seeing him turn out two or three novels a year doesn’t do much to inspire confidence; is he spreading himself too thin?

In any case, those readers who slogged through Aftermath deserve something to lessen the bad taste of it; Starfire might fit the bill. And if you haven’t read the first volume, well, it’s not essential for enjoying this one.

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