Book Review: The Dark Beyond the Stars – by Frank M. Robinson

Dark Beyond the StarsThe Astron is a starship sent by the governments of Earth with a mission to find other life, and hopefully intelligence, in the universe. The ship is about 500 meters long with habitat for a crew of 900 people in three main cylinders, each holding life support, educational facilities, habitats, hydroponics, and anything else a crew might need that leaves the earth knowing they themselves won’t come back. When the ship leaves, it’s the shining result of human technology. Gleaming bulkheads, stainless steel fixtures, chrome embellishments, artificial reality  enhancements, libraries, gymnasiums, and of course a full complement of scientific equipment. Since the mission is to discover life, they carry a huge hanger with landers, rovers, space suits and  ny equipment they might need to explore planets.

The story starts about 2,000 years after the ship has left the Earth. Over 100 generations have lived and died. Imagine being born in a world that is a spaceship that has been traveling for 2,000 years, with all knowledge of 100 generations of ancestors living their entire lives on the ship. After 2,000 years, the Astron is no longer a gleaming beacon of high technology. It’s bulkheads are rusted and caked with dirt. Dust and grime covers all surfaces. The smell of oil and human sweat permeates the air. Two of the three habitat cylinders have been abandoned for more than a thousand years, cannibalized and shut off. The crew is only about 300 people. Resources are scarce. When something breaks, they have to resort to cannibalizing something else to try to fix it.  Equipment no longer functions, spacesuits fall apart during missions, tethers break. They have visited 1,500 planets and have not found as much as even microscopic signs of life.

The captain, obsessed with the mission, wants to break out of the current sidearm of the Milky Way, the one our Earth is part of, and fly across The Dark Beyond the Stars to another arm where he expects that older stars in more dense fields give a better chance for finding life. However, it may take another 3,000 years to cross the Dark before they can explore again, another 150 generations of humans have to live and die only for the journey. Can the Astron even sustain such a trip? The current generation seems to have lost the will for the mission, and mutiny is in the stale air.

Published in 1991, the author only knew about the calculations of the odds of other life in the universe that were prevalent then, mostly based on the famous Drake Equation. He did not benefit from current planet findings in 2013, where astronomers are coming to the conclusion that planets are abundant in the universe and we are finding exoplanets at the rate of several a day. Written today, this novel would have to have a somewhat different premise, but it works with the 1991 angle.

The first 90% of the novel moved a little too slowly for me. The author does not spend much time on hard science fiction. The Astron moves at relativistic speeds between stars, but he never seems to consider acceleration and deceleration. Other than when exercising in a rotating gymnasium, the crew lives in free fall all the time. This would defy the concept of acceleration and deceleration when approaching planetary systems. While the author told of endless and somewhat repetitious crew politics for hundreds of pages, I would have liked more detail about the Astron, and more description of the scientific concepts applied. My anticipated rating of the book was therefore going to be mediocre.

Then plot twists in the last 10% of the book stepped up the action and inspired my imagination, and after I could not put the book down for the last 30 or so pages, I can’t help but increase my rating by half a star.

I love generation ship stories. It’s one of my favorite sub-genre of science fiction. This book is a generation ship story through and through.

Rating: ** 1/2

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