BRIEF SYNOPSIS: John Bandicut and his crew are the last hope to save the galaxy from destructive hyperspatial gravity waves.
PROS: Non-stop action; fast-paced; large scale sf-nal ideas.
CONS: Flat characterizations; a secondary plot thread seemed unnecessary; it took me half the book to “learn” how best to read it.
BOTTOM LINE: A good space adventure that I suspect I would have enjoyed even more had I read the prequels.
Science fiction set in space is usually characterized by lots of action sequences and big ideas. Sunborn, the fourth book in Jeffrey A. Carver’s Chaos Chronicles series, is no exception. It follows John Bandicut and his crew, a band of exiled adventurers who are expecting a well-deserved rest after the events of the previous novels, who soon discover that a vacation is not meant to be. The way station to which they are suddenly diverted is subjected to hyperspatial gravity waves that are getting stronger and threaten countless planets in the galaxy, including Earth. Bandicut and his team are enlisted to travel to the source of the disturbances and find a way to stop them in order to save the galaxy.
As you might tell, Carver is telling his story on a huge canvas. Accordingly, the book is overflowing with big sf-nal ideas that are worthy of its scope. It successfully incorporates sentient stars, traveling in n-space (a hyperspace dimension that allows super quick travel and also offers some too-convenient protection), a ship that morphs to accommodate any size or layout (though, much to the chagrin of its passengers, lacks any offensive weapons), translation-stones that are used to facilitate communication between any number of characters (including aliens and the aforementioned sentient stars), artificial intelligences that drive the ships, suns going hypernova, and ancient alien wars. There’s quite a lot of energy being thrown about as well, both in-story and in the prose. The action starts almost immediately and the book speeds along quite consistently. Carver’s straightforward delivery helps make it a blindingly fast read…but it took me half the book to realize it.
Here’s why: There’s a certain emotional investment required to really immerse yourself in an action-packed space opera and ingest it as fast as you can. So you either have to be immediately drawn to the story or the characters. The story is good – it’s basically “small group of people saves the universe”. This is certainly serviceable (and to be sure, I’m oversimplifying), but those same big sf-nal ideas it bandies about need to be (or should be) both believable and (hopefully) based on rigorous science. As for believability, Bandicut’s crew seems to have lots of things conveniently work out for them. They start out with very little to go on (and no weapons of any kind), yet pull off a series of stunning accomplishments. I expect some level of this in space opera, but this seemed to be a little too much. As to the rigorous science, I found the text to be much more enjoyable when I didn’t read too deeply in any scientific explanations (when they were given — there was a decent amount of hand-waving going on). So, it took me half the book to learn the best way to read it: ride the waves of the plot and don’t dip your feet into the waters of detail. Once I did that, the book morphed into the action-packed story I expected and was very enjoyable.
That second element of emotional investment – the characters – was a slightly different story. The cast is not huge, but it isn’t small either, and they stem from different planets. Although John Bandicut comes from Earth, his crew is about as colorful and alien as they come: there’s Ik, a Hraachee’an; Li-Jared, a Karellian; Antares, a female empath from Thespi; two robots named Copernicus and Napolean; and a symbiote quarx named Charlie/Charlene that is integrated into Bandicut’s mind. Additionally, there is the robot hologram named Jeaves who is leading the expedition, a few sentient stars, an evil alien AI hive mind known as the Mindaru, Bandicut’s old flame (Julie), and a couple of alien entities from another universe nicknamed Deep and Dark. (Carver has a penchant to give his characters impossibly pronounceable names, only to have them be given nicknames shortly thereafter.)
That’s quite a cast of characters to juggle. The good news is that the author does an excellent job at changing points of view. It’s always clear which character you are following. The bad news is that the characters are not very deeply drawn. This could be an artifact of me jumping into a series at book four, but I found these characters to be neither sympathetic nor interesting. It didn’t help that throughout the first half of the book these so-called heroes were nothing more than bystanders. Not only is this frustrating for the characters, as they repeatedly mention, but also for the reader. The heroes are, in effect neutered; they are nothing more than observers while an AI drives the ship and Jeeves placates them with information as it trickles in or is deduced. Also, whenever they initially get close to Deep, the alien from another universe, they are either too mentally stressed to continue or fall flat-out unconscious. These are the heroes that are going to save the galaxy?
I note here, too, that there is a secondary plot thread that involves Julie Stone, Bandicut’s love interest from the previous books. Or maybe not. Bandicut seems to have a serious relationship with Antares the empath; again, not having read the previous books, I couldn’t decide if this was acceptable in this universe or Bandicut is a letch, as not much time has elapsed from their first adventure. At any rate, Julie (jut like Bandicut) is thrust into the role of reluctant hero and must save the earth from a more direct threat. While this was certainly an interesting secondary story line filled with action and drama (especially when I “learned” how best to read the book), one wonders whether it was entirely necessary since the only purpose of this sub-plot seemed to be that she would (finally) reunite with Bandicut. And yet that never actually happens, though the stage is definitely set for that by the end of the story. I was hoping to see some resolution in the Bandicut/Antares/Julie triangle. I’ll guess I’ll have to wait for the next book which, despite some flaws in this one, I’d be interested in reading.
In the meantime, now that I’ve grown somewhat familiar with the Chaos Chronicles universe, I’d like to check out the first three books: Neptune Crossing, Strange Attractors, and The Infinite Sea which Carver has made available for free download at his website.