Tor, 2003, 352 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34677-X
Some comparisons can hurt as much as they help. If I say that Mike Brotherton’s Star Dragon is a book in the purest tradition of Robert L. Forward’s hard-SF, is that a rave or a rant?
Some some, it’ll be a buy-on-sight commendation. Forward was long known as the hardest or the hard-SF writers, an author whose books could be enjoyed as pleasant diversions by College-level Physics students (as I myself found out while reading Dragon’s Egg during a Physics 201 course dealing with high-energy magnetic field lines.) SF readers of the hardest variety can often be heard bemoaning the lack of “old style” Science Fiction where you really got your degree’s worth of extrapolation.
But Forward’s fiction has simultaneously alienated at least a generation of readers through shaky characterization, textbook dialogues (as in “reading from textbooks”), indifferent prose style, amusement-park plotting and lack of literary depth. This isn’t a slam as much as it’s an acknowledgement of Forward’s intentions. Science Fiction is large and contains multitudes: if someone wants to push the envelope of rigorous scientific exploration, why not celebrate that achievement rather than criticize the book for a lack of virtues that neither author nor ideal reader particularly care for?
And that brings us to Star Dragon, Mike Brotherton’s debut novel. Like Dragon’s Egg, it’s a novel about a bunch of humans investigating an exotic alien life form living in a very different environment. Like Forward’s work, it’s exquisitely well-researched and backed up by solid mathematical equations. Unlike Forward’s work, it attempts characterization. Like Forward’s work, alas, it will fascinate whoever is fascinated by this sort of things, and leave the rest of the audience groaning for some relevance.
It starts promisingly enough, on a future Earth where biotechnology has become a dominant science. Brotherton’s imaged tomorrow is a wonder of icky soft surfaces, custom-grown biological tissue and easy body manipulation. Our protagonist is a top scientific mind who is offered an unusual mission: A centuries-long trip to another star where strange phenomenons (probably not entirely artificial) have been detected. It’s a chance to do real science, but it comes at a price: a few years of travel spent with only a few other people, and a one-way trip hundreds of years in the future thanks to the marvels of relativistic space travel. As setups go, this is classic but promising. While the prose style has a certain initial stiffness, it suggests a fun hard-SF adventure.
But things start to sour between departure and arrival, as the six main characters are locked in a sentimental psychological drama that, blandly speaking, fails to engage. The AI is modelled after Hemingway while the five humans have serious psychological problems that proves that future personnel screening in this novel owes a lot more to psychological sadism than to mission objectives. (It’s as if the HR director of the mission was trying to put together a cast for a reality TV show.) On one hand, I have to compliment Brotherton for attempting some human drama in a hard-SF tale. On the other, I have to wonder what was he thinking. Given the choice between flat characters and others that are flat-out insane (seriously planning to impregnate the entire human female population, for instance), I may pick and choose the dull ones, because I can at least empathize with dull people. This is one area where Brotherton may still have something to learn from Forward.
But that, as they say, it not the main presentation. That comes later, when our intrepid dysfunctional crew is faced with the alien life-form orbiting SS Sygni. There the comparisons with Forward kick in high gear: If you’re fascinated with star dynamics and impact thereof on wholly hypothetical living creatures, then Star Dragon is the book for you. Others (myself included) are likely to feel their eyes glaze over and whimper “too much… too much…” In some sense, here’s a favourable review: “This hard-SF will break even so-called hard SF fans.” Sensawunda? Sensawhoaaah.
But I’ll allow for some leniency, given how my reading conditions for this novel were less than ideal and how hard-SF tales often require a specific frame of mind. Star Dragon still feels like a bunch of good ideas ill-presented, in sore need of tighter editing and less psychological silliness. But as a debut, it’s promising and not without its share of strengths. I may not rush out to buy Brotherton’s second novel, but I’ll pay attention to the reviews. Writers who write adequately are a dime a dozen, but writers who can play alongside Robert L. Forward are rare and precious, even if their work can be problematic at times.