Chief Terry Myell and Lieutenant Commander Jodenny Scott are trying to prove that a mixed marriage of an enlisted man and an officer can work, despite its being contrary to regulations. In The Stars Down Under, Sandra McDonald’s sequel to The Outback Stars, the couple find they have a lot more to worry about than trying to make their marriage succeed - like, oh, making the Wondjina Spheres, a set of ancient alien artifacts that link places and times, work again after they’ve mysteriously shut down. Oh, yeah: there’s the slight problem of saving the Earth and, by extension, other worlds humans inhabit from the alien Bunyips, or Roons.
Australian references and the Aboriginal culture play an important and integral part in this book, as they did in The Outback Stars. Terry and Jodenny even have a cuddly talking robot koala named Karl as a companion and pet. Wait just a moment - a science fiction novel involving spaceships, military conflicts using advanced weaponry, and travel in both time and space, making references to Aboriginal culture?
It may sound strange, but McDonald successfully relates these and many other Aboriginal concepts into the plot of The Stars Down Under, entrancing the reader with the story she brilliantly weaves. Crocodiles that can take human form, Bunyips, the Dream Time, and a mystical god-like Rainbow Serpent - which also appears in the first book - are integrated seamlessly into the tale. Far from being incongruent, these details enrich the novel, making it an excellent and entertaining addition to the sci-fi/fantasy genre. The idea of combining the myths and culture of the Aborigines with hard science fiction may seem, at first blush, difficult to reconcile, but in McDonald’s hands, the combination is believable and works incredibly well.
At the novel’s beginning, Chief Terry Myell, who is at the center of much of the action in this book, is having a rough time at his new teaching job. He has been promoted to the title of Chief by Team Space in the field for his heroism on the spaceship Aral Sea for helping defeat terrorists at Baime, and has earned the Silver Star. However, his superior, Captain Kuvik, and others don’t like it that Myell chose to skip the usual initiation that other Chiefs generally are forced to endure. One thing they do to express this displeasure is put a hood over his head, tie him to a pillar, and beat him up. As one of his attackers says about the initiation, “None of it’s optional.”
Myell has been having visions of a gray-scaled crocodile and the Rainbow Serpent. He attempts to act as if they are just hallucinations, perhaps the after-effects of his experiences on the Aral Sea, but they prove to be much more than that - they guide him towards his ultimate destiny. His mother nicknamed him Jungali when he was a boy, or Jungle Cat, the name whispered in her ear by the Rainbow Serpent. Later on in the book, he also is known as the Lightning Man and thought of as a successor to the last of the Nogomains, the beings in charge of the Wondjina Spheres.
The Stars Down Under is gritty but often poetic, with a fast-moving, extremely engaging plot and well-fleshed characters. McDonald incorporates her intimate knowledge of the military of today into the plot, having served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, and it shows in the realism she brings to the details about military life throughout the book. I don’t know if the author has ever lived in Australia or not, but she writes about the culture of the Aborigines as if she has, placing this book a cut above much of today’s science fiction and adding a great deal of interest to the story. I recommend it highly.