Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Wrong Stars - Tim Pratt

The Wrong Stars is a space opera of sorts, centred around the White Raven and its crew, a group of freelance security contractors with a penchant for putting their noses where they don’t belong, then trying to avoid having them shot off.

This is a universe where humanity has exploded outward from Earth, not just across the solar system, but into multiple systems. To do so, it uses tramlines of sorts – heading from one point to another via tunnels in space time, which can be opened via technology obtained by trading with an alien race. Ships travel to a transit point, then pop out at their destination.  This gives the universe a sense of distance, a feeling of scale which keeps everything else in perspective. People are spreading quickly, and there’s an optimism and sense of hope there, as well as an energy and drive which permeates the prose, a background mindset driving decisions. We’re still people, though, so even this diaspora is no utopia. Even within the solar system, there are splits that seem to run along corporate lines – great merchant houses jockeying for power and control in a quiet cold war. This means that the hope is intertwined with a certain tension, with internal conflicts that are quietly simmering, a contrast to the more positive expressions of humanity as it attempts to stretch its wings. This has benefits too, though – an implied increase in the amount of technology available for self-enhancement being just one of the perks.

That stretching, of course, has been brought about by the intervention of aliens. There’s one species floating around the galaxy, whose interactions with humanity aren’t violent. They seem happy to trade with humanity, speak with them, and largely stay out of the way. At this point, humans are more concerned with getting their feet under the table in a few more colonisable star systems than looking their benefactors gift horse in the mouth. As the story goes on, we get more context and background on this species; it’s excellent background, a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of something with a perspective different to that of humanity.

Which matters less to the crew of the White Raven, who start the day chasing down pirates and troublemakers for one of the big corporations, on a nominally freelance basis. They’re a delightful found family filled transhuman cyborgs, hardass privateers, divertingly religious medics and a sarcastic AI. As an ensemble, the focus is clearly on Callie, the captain, but the others all have contributions to make, and f they don’t always get enough time on the page, what they do have is enough to make you care about what happens to them next.

I’ve got a lot of time for Callie, mind you. A woman determined to do her best for ship and crew, and even to do the right thing – albeit within certain pragmatic constraints of ‘right’. Callie learly carries old emotional injuries, but keeps much of that internalised – instead using her emotional energy to drive her crew forward. At the open, she feels like an iceberg, roiling the emotional waters internally, but presenting a largely convincing fa├žade to the outside world. That she cares for her crew is never in doubt. That she’s also willing to kick arse and take names is also, veryqquickly, not in doubt either. Not a paragon, but a good-hearted contractor, trying to make ends meet and do the best they can, Callie’s mix of weariness and determination kept me turning pages, especially when that determination was backed up by terrifying technology and serious munitions.

On which note – this is an adventure story. There’s action, the kind that comes with expertly built tension, released in bursts of adrenaline and gunfire, for sure. But there’s an emotional heart here as well, which makes you care about that action – the characters clearly care about each other, and as they care, so do we, as they try and keep each other out of trouble, and stay alive. But there’s a lot going on. Archaeology, of sorts, and revelations about the nature of the universe, are backed by some brilliant fight scenes, which kept me on the edge of my seat while turning pages rather quickly. 

There’s big and small stakes in play here – from the fate of the universe to the fate of one woman’s heart. It’s smart, punchy sci-fi which has all the mixings of a cracking space adventure, blended to make something more than the sum of its parts. Most of all, it’s fun, and I’d encourage reading it on that basis; I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what the next book in the series brings!

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