The literary genre I grew up knowing as F&SF has, of late, become pretty much FANTASY!! & science fiction. Authors such as Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon, Dick are gone now, and there are no replacements. Even worse, the F&SF shelves in most bookstores are overrun by something even worse than mediocre fantasy trilogies; the vampire novel. Can someone deliver hard sci-fi fans from the literary wasteland? Please? A few names still toil in the pantheon of hard scifi authors: Stross, Niven; Vinge (Vernor, not Joan), Haldeman (both Jack and Joe)… can Mike Brotherton crack that list? hard to say…
Spider Star (Brotherton’s second outing after 2003’s Star Dragon) is set in a 25th-century human colony on the planet Argo. Humans aren’t the first local civilization; a species the settlers call “Argonauts” vanished millions of years ago, leaving behind fabulous technology and fascinating ruins. Archaeologists have reconstructed much of Argonaut history and culture, down to the level of the bedtime stories the eight-legged creatures told their children. There’s more to find, however – Argonaut technology stored in a form of stasis is still uncovered on a regular basis. One such find, however, could ultimately destroy the colony - even the planet itself. When a human triggers a long-dormant trip-wire, Argo’s sun starts to attack its own planets. Oops.
Convinced by an Argonaut child’s nursery rhyme that the answer lies at what the Argonauts called “the Spider Star,” the colonists mount an expedition to that light years-distant construct. The expedition is manned by scouts and specialists who know that their mission will last for two generations, and that there’s no guarantee that the answer can be found at their objective. Yet, led by Frank Klingston and Manny Rusk, the tiny team blasts off for the stars.
Is theirs a fools’ errand? Or can the doughty fellowship save their home from an angry sun?
Rave reviews for Brotherton’s previous novel notwithstanding, Spider Star isn’t hard sci-fi of the first water - not even of the second water. Clearly an interesting, although not particularly original, premise; the plot fails, however, to develop along a coherent arc. It’s beset by logical problems: at the rate the star is pummeling the planet, the fifty years necessary for the exploration team’s round trip seems rather a waste of time. There’s frequent failure to establish a basis for the characters’ action: how the colonists decide the answer would lie at the Spider Star in the first place, for instance, as well as other shortfalls. Several elements of the plot are similar to older works – the Argonauts could easily be the long-departed Slavers of Niven’s Known Space series, for instance; the beings at the Spider Star bear a more than passing resemblance to something out of Clarke’s Rama trilogy; and descriptions of travel to and from the star smack of Haldeman’s The Forever War. The plot contains many elements typical of fantasy trilogies – a fellowship journeying to a distant land in search of a magic talisman to save their homeland being a case in point. Though set in a future world and featuring some of the trappings of hard sci-fi – robots, mind-scans, space travel – it reads far more like something from Terry Brooks than from David Brin.
Brotherton has somewhat more luck with the human element, though for the most part his characters tend to be one-dimensional. The interaction between his protagonists Klingston and Rusk might well have been lifted from an episode of “The Apprentice,” though his depictions of the characters’ relationships with their families and loved ones is more realistic.
When all is said and done, some will like Spider Star and some won’t. I’m one of the latter: the plot is just too contrived, the characters are just too flat, and I’ve never been a fan of the deus ex machine conclusion. It’s a stretch to give this one three stars.