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

Book Review: Seed of Light – by Edmund Cooper

I recently highlighted this cover as an example of hokey science fiction cover art in the classic science fiction time of the mid 20th century. Meanwhile I have read this book and many thoughts about it are tugging me this way and that. It’s a fairly thin, small book of only 160 pages, but the type is very small. This was printed in 1959. In a more modern format there would probably be about 350 pages or so.

When reading Seed of Light, I realized again – and I tend to keep forgetting this fact – that I really don’t like reading “classic science fiction.” What I mean by classic is probably that it was written somewhere between 1930 and 1975. I tend to enjoy the more modern works of Orson Scott Card, Stephen Baxter, John Scalzi and contemporaries.

One of the reasons for this is that the authors usually portray a future that to them is utopian, and to me is distant past. George Orwell first published 1984 in 1949. He went 35 years into the future. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 in 1968. He went 33 years into the future. And Cooper wrote Seed of Light in 1959, and it starts playing around 1980, after the world has experienced a nuclear war that devastated the globe and ruined the entire atmosphere.

Humanity built a starship, 100 meters high and 20 meters wide in the shape of a rocket (see the picture on the cover). This starship is launched with a select group of 5 men and 5 women and all provisions and life support they would need for years, or decades, while traveling to another star. The ship is the “seed” of humanity and meant to save a few individuals to keep humanity from complete extinction.

Of course, Cooper didn’t expect computers, digital records, automated controls, and deep space communications. In 1959, the Russians had plans to launch humans into space, but Gagarin didn’t fly until 1961. So Cooper’s spaceship of the 1980s was a rocket based on pre-computing technology. The crew had records on microfiche. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but for me it makes the story so contrived, I have a hard time remaining captivated by it and I get distracted analyzing it.

Seed of Light is a great generation starship story, really one of the better ones I remember reading.

However, there are a lot of problems with the book overall. It’s divided into three parts. Part one is about politics on earth between 1960 and 1980, and how the world was ruined. Frankly, I didn’t care, and I forced myself to skim over it. Looking back, the entire part one could have been left out and replaced with a one-page exposition on why the starship was built and why it had to leave earth. There was no connection between all the characters in part one and those in part two. It was boring and irrelevant.

Part two told the story of the first few generations of the star travelers. What would it feel like to be in a tin can 100 meters long and 20 meters wide for decades, knowing that you’d be there for the rest of your life? Then there was the second generation, their children. They were born on the ship. They grew up and were educated on the ship. When they were old enough, they took over running it. They had children of their own. Then the third generation came. Only a few of the first were left. Leaving earth was now a distant legend, nothing more. This went on for 1000 years, 40 generations. Cooper did a good job in part two describing this kind of life and experience.

In part three Cooper no longer told a story but basically lectured. He stopped writing a novel, but simply rambled on about far-out concepts of telepathy, telepathic projection into the future, determinism, faster than light travel, and all the stuff he was obviously interested in. Somehow he needed to fit all this into the story. The entire part three, designed to resolve the plot, ended up being nothing but exposition. There is very little dialog in that section. The whole thing has a feeling of deus ex machina, and the end, while inventive, left me wanting more.

Cooper tried to do too much with this book. He should have thrown out part one and part three, both really irrelevant to the central concept of the generation ship, and built out part two more. I loved reading part two, and worked my way by force through the other stuff.

In the end, I have to say that Seed of Light is a pretty poor book, as novels go, and mostly an opportunity missed, but part two is a must read for anyone interested in generation starships.

Rating: ** (would be one star if part two were not so effective)