Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review:Second Star (Star Svensdotter Book 1) By Dana Stabenow

Second Star (Star Svensdotter Book 1) By Dana Stabenow

Perhaps the title of this comes from everyone's favorite quote from Peter Pan by James M. Barrie.
"Second to the right," said Peter, "and then straight on till morning."

And then; perhaps making use of the often added Star. "Second Star to the right, and straight on till morning."

Stronger evidence; is that this quote shows up in the book.

I've always loved Robert A. Heinlein all the way from his juvenile series of space novels to his controversial Stranger in a Strange Land. And his somewhat more speculative later years of connecting his alternate universe into a whole.

In her introduction Dana mentions his juvenile books as being an inspiration- and I've no doubt that they are. But this story really reads more closely to his Man Who Sold the Moon.

One thing that this story has over the old Heinlein stories is that the Female protagonist is very strong and independent. Esther Natasha Svensdotter or Star as she likes to be called- takes no crap from anyone.(Although it is interesting that in Heinlein's Glory Road there's a Star who turns out to be Empress of many worlds. She is a strong willed woman but we see her mostly through Oscar Gordon's viewpoint.) Part of reason for Star to be the way she is may have to do with the environment of the space station and her own insistence on having no weapons on board. She's appointed herself the judge, jury and in some instances the executioner. Swift punishment, which we are graphically shown at the beginning, to those who endanger the rest of the residents.

This type of character is very typical of many of those aboard ships, stations and colonies in Heinlein's work. This type of discipline shows up in many science fiction novels and seems to carry over from the romantic notions of how early sea faring shipboard discipline was handled.Though it seems efficient and swift and can be justified it still can have it's tole on the conscience and it is handled well in Star's own reactions after the fact.

This story begins with Star returning from a visit to Earth. She definitely hates getting her land legs and is happy to be returning to her domain. This trip back to the Lagrange Point Five or Ellfive is a neat way of introduction to the level of technology involved in this universe. There's a lot of information here for someone who claims to not be all that scientifically inclined and this is all coming from first person report from Star who has to be knowledgeable to all of this jargon. This seems sometimes to be a bit much but really it's just the world building to bring us up to speed to Star's universe and the various players in the universe.

What I enjoyed is the between the lines build up of Star's character. She's all woman, but she's not your woman of the bygone ages and maybe even a few clicks above the women of the time that this story was written. She's earned her place and for that she has a loyal team on Ellfive who would march through hell for her.

It's the whys- for why Ellfive is up there that reminds me of The Man Who Sold the Moon. Even down to the why Star is there on Ellfive. Star is almost like Harriman of TMWSTM. He wanted to own the moon and would do anything to get there. He's ruthless and devious and almost a bit dishonest. Star thankfully diverges from this in that her motivations always seem genuine and honest. Although, how she got up there seems to have shades of the same type of deception involved in TMWSTM only in this case the more egregious parts of Harriman's character have been portioned out to secondary characters associated with Star.

Another divergent element would be that Harriman- despite his successes- was never able to -hands on- do what he wanted to do, which is go to the moon himself.(His board of directors thought he was too valuable by that time.) Star is out there living the dream. Of course her dream is not all glamor, which is well displayed in the description of the mundane everyday workings of things aboard Ellfive. This might be a problem for some readers who don't recognize that when dealing with stories that are attempting to portray real Science in the fiction there are often a lot of mundane things that are done to help keep everyone alive. It also helps portray the fragility of the relationship of man to the environment of space.

This novel has a very good balance of those elements to help drive the story. This apparent lengthy narrative path also helps introduce all the characters and their dependent relationship to each other. And, it ultimately helps introduce the conflicts that exist, which will eventually be the threat that drives the plot.

Star has several contentious groups she has to deal with - one is the Space Patrol who seem to be acquiring bases and equipment floating in space in the name of national security. Star has some past with Gray, the head of the patrol. It seems that part of that has to do with is his trying to acquire Ellfive as one of his bases. Then there's a strong element of politics on earth, the Alliance Congress, which are often a driving force that might be influence by the Patrols past successes in obtaining strategic targets in space. And, there's the fringe element of the Luddites who hate technology.

As we come into the story Star has recently lost her head of security- a man who was causing more trouble than good and seems to have vanished mysteriously. A replacement,Caleb O'hara, has been sent to her but not soon enough to assist in an initial crisis from a Luddite who intended to blow something up. Star is forced to take care of that situation and a portion of the rest of the next few chapters is getting the new man up to speed.

Along with some few problems being caused by the space patrol causing station docking schedules to bottleneck she has to deal with issues the patrol are causing with the local merchants and longshoremen. And her station's master computer Archy -created and maintained by Stars brother-inlaw Simon- is showing signs of possibly getting out of hand. (Reminiscent of some of the AI's in Heinlein's work) Archy may be exhibiting signs that he's going a step above the simple AI he is supposed to be.

Added to this mix now will be some supply problems that are occurring between the Lunar facility and Ellfive. Someone may have their hand in that and it might turn out that there are things afoot that Star is unaware of.(All part of a big plot.)

As if that might not be enough there's another thread in the story that again parallels The Man Who Sold the Moon. Just as Harriman sent diamonds aboard the ship to the moon-as an experiment(while hoping to have people mistakenly believe he found them on the moon and is trying to hide the fact.) It would seem that the reason that Ellfive was created was in response to a signal that came from Betelgeuse intimating that there are aliens out there. Everyone had gotten into the mad rush to get out in space to meet the aliens. But the question is what really was that message and why haven't they heard any more. Might the message be a red herring.

And then just as in TMWSTM when the ship came back it had more diamonds than Harriman sent. While everything is creating a turmoil on Ellfive what's to be made of the newest message from Betelgeuse?

To go any further would really be giving spoilers. But, for me it's never so much the science or the plot as it is the characters.

I always loved Heinlein's characters- in spite of some of their outdated 50's mentality. And that's where this story grabbed me. Star is a standout protagonist with her flawed group of Ellfivers behind her all the way. They really drove this story for me much more than the various elements of the plot.

If you love Science Fiction or you're just looking for strong characters to relate to; this is a good novel for that. It delivers a good plot with some interesting themes; though because it was published back in 1991 and in the story the message from Betelgeuse arrives in 1992 it's a bit dated and now seems to fall into the category of alternate universe.

It's a good beginning to Star's story and I'm glad there is more story to tell.

Dana Stabenow is not Robert Heinlein (I say that meaning it to be a plus)- don't expect her to be (no one is) and you will be happy with this book.

J.L. Dobias

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