Sunday, November 27, 2016
Mixed Galaxies: Altered Starscape by Ian Douglas
I have mixed feelings about Altered Starscape by Ian Douglas. While there are a lot of cool ideas, none of them came together in a satisfactory way for me.
The Good Bits
I picked this up because the basic premise sounded cool: due to traveling near a super massive black hole, a group of humans are thrown four billion years into the future, a time when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are merging. There are galactic civilizations, vast megastructures (aka "Big Dumb Objects"), god-like artificial intelligences, post-humans adapted for life in space, and much more that I don't want to spoil. All of that is pretty cool.
The Philosophy Report
Some of the good stuff is philosophical. For instance, there's a discussion of hedonism that explicitly mentions Epicurus and Aristotle. The discussion is basically about whether a blissful, but unreal life would be a happy one, a discussion reminiscent of everything from The Matrix and Iain M. Banks's Surface Detail to Robert Nozick's experience machine thought experiment. The Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva comes into play in a similar discussion of why some people might stay behind instead of entering this world. All of this provides some food for thought, but unfortunately you don't see much exploration of the philosophical bits in the book.
The Bad Stuff
It feels like the author had a lot of really cool ideas but had no idea how to bring any of them to anything resembling a satisfactory resolution. It's like he was working from notes and didn't have time to fill in the details. I understand that this is supposed to be the first book in a series, but a first book should have more of a resolution than this. There's a half-hearted attempt to tie up some of the loose ends, but the knots aren't tight enough to work. Something about the breeziness of this book doesn't give me much faith that all of these concepts will receive anything resembling in-depth treatment in future volumes.
There are a few more specific annoyances. The main character is a cookie-cutter curmudgeonly General. He's basically married to a sex robot, but it's supposed to be okay because he has qualms about it. There's some interesting stuff about this robot maybe getting emancipated, but then you don't hear anything about it again for hundreds of pages.
Perhaps the weirdest thing is that none of the characters seem all that disturbed or awe-struck by the fact that they've jumped ahead four billion years. This bizarre lack of concern is even mentioned in the book at one point and then, like so many other ideas, oddly forgotten.
Ian Douglas (a pseudonym of William Keith) is mostly known for various series of hard core military science fiction. Military SF isn't really my thing, but I picked this up because it sounded like that aspect was downplayed. Thankfully you don't get too many confusing space battles with acronym-spewing space marines in this book, but there's probably not enough of that to satisfy military SF fans and too much of it for people like me. There's also a bit of a militaristic undertone to the way civilians are represented that's reminiscent of the Ur-text of military SF: Starship Troopers (see my review of Starship Troopers here, which gets into Heinlein's use of Plato among other things).
I really wanted to like Altered Starscape. I love vast, mind-bending space operas. But this one has neither the intellectual depth of Iain M. Banks and Joe Haldeman nor the intricate world-building of Peter F. Hamilton, neither the humor of John Scalzi nor the engaging characters of Lois McMaster Bujold. Maybe none of that is what this space opera was trying to be, but the problem was that I felt like the book couldn't decide what it was trying to be, either.
(See also my Goodreads review).