BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The crew of a research ship named Starplex discovers a new sector of space and discovers something new and revolutionary.
PROS: Evokes much sense of wonder; mind-blowing ideas; well-depicted and diverse cast of humans and aliens; interesting speculations about dark matter and the origins of the universe.
CONS: The awesome sense of wonder doesn’t really kick-in until the second half of the book; a few questionable actions/decisions by some characters.
BOTTOM LINE: A good old-fashioned optimistic sf read.
Robert J. Sawyer’s 1996 novel Starplex takes place in an optimistic twenty-first century where a scientific research vessel is on a mission of exploration. This is made possible by a series of shortcuts through space, the origins of which are unknown. Those same shortcuts have ushered in a new era in humanity, one that is founded on peace and includes cooperative relationships with multiple alien races. Starplex (commanded by Keith Lansing) even has aliens on its crew, which also includes a group of terrestrial dolphins with whom humanity now peacefully share the Earth. Starplex is researching an unexplored sector of space when they find something new; a discovery that eventually leads to some amazing revelations.
One of the overwhelming draws of science fiction is its sense of wonder – the concepts and ideas that expand your mind. Starplex certainly has more than its fair share, with instantaneous wormhole shortcuts, well-drawn aliens, a surprising explanation of dark matter, first contact with yet another alien race, and startling ideas about the origins of the universe. The expectation would be that these bits of wonder are consistently doled out throughout the novel; however Starplex distributes them a bit unevenly. The overwhelming bulk of the wonder comes in the second half of the book. For the first half of the novel there is a significant lack of dramatic conflict as the groundwork is laid for the events that follow. Admittedly, there are some mildly dramatic situations presented (leftover prejudice between humans and aliens; Lansing’s feelings towards a crew member who is not his wife), but these seem artificially inserted and oddly out of place. Near the halfway mark, the sense of wonder finally kicks into high gear with startling revelations about dark matter and galactic-scale goings-on that make the mind reel. That’s the novel makes the transition from run-of-the-mill to solid entertainment, where the wonders of space become the main appeal. And for action fans, there’s a decent action sequence, too, despite the fact that Starplex is not a military ship.
Starplex is the book in which Sawyer’s bid adieu to space opera. (A fond farewell it was, too: it won the Aurora Award and was both a Hugo and Nebula finalist.) The books that followed focused on the near future extrapolations that are still a hallmark of Sawyer’s today. And although his sf focus may have changed, Starplex shows that clear and straightforward writing has marked Sawyer’s work for quite some time.
That’s easily seen in the handling of the novel’s cast which is nicely varied and includes humans, dolphins and a diverse selection of well-depicted aliens. The reader gets to see interesting takes on alien customs. Character actions are mostly consistent though there are a few that are questionable. For example, there is one thread that weaves through the book where Lansing finds himself (chronologically after the events of the story) talking to a member of a new alien race. Lansing seems way too forthcoming with the strange glass-like being he just recently met. In another eyebrow-raising, philosophically questionable scene, Sawyer’s pacifist future dictates that principle alone is used to prevent a much-justified retaliation after a series of devastating attacks on humanity. It’s difficult to imagine such actions being accepted en masse by humans, even peace-loving ones. At what point does turning the other cheek become impossible? According to this future, never. When all is said and done, Starplex‘s future – even ignoring the obvious parallels like the tractor beam and lasers — feels very Star Trek: The Original Series…except there are no Klingons — our relationship with all the alien races is one big love-in.