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Hugos Review 2015: The Dark Between the Stars, by Kevin J. Anderson

This book had some fun moments. I finished it, which is saying something (not always the case for books I read these days). However, I do not think it is award-worthy.

In my last Hugos review, I talked about how Jim Butcher’s Skin Game fell into the category of “a good book, but not for me”; a little too stand-alone, too action-packed, too deeply rooted in the tropes of genres I’m not generally excited about. Anderson’s Dark Between the Stars had a number of elements that should have inclined me toward ranking it higher than Butcher’s book. It’s a huge, sweeping story, the first in a trilogy; it includes interesting worldbuilding and cultural stuff; and it focuses as much on small human moments (where “human” might mean human/human, human/robot, human/alien, or some other sentient-being interaction) as it does on big space battles. And yet, in my opinion, its problems outweighed its strengths.

The basic elements: The Dark Between the Stars seemed to me to be classic space opera, telling a broad, sweeping story through the eyes of what seemed like dozens of narrators (I didn’t actually count). It continues a story from an earlier trilogy, The Saga of Seven Suns, set in a universe where humans have moved out from Earth to colonize a number of planets with the help of alien technology. There’s one major alien race, the Ildirans, who the humans are allied with to the point of interbreeding, and several others (the gas-giant-living hydrogues and extinct, buglike Klikiss) who are or were human enemies; the setting also includes highly advanced robots called “compys,” and at least 2 intelligent elemental-like species, the fiery faeroes and watery wentals. A brief aside: I figured out all of this world-building detail without needing to reference the earlier books, which is a point in Anderson’s favor. Compared to other “related series” that I’ve read, I would say the book stands alone.

The story also seems like classic sci-fi fare to me; there is a new, dark threat in the universe, in this case embodied by literal clouds of darkness that come from nowhere and engulf ships, people, and planets. This threat is particularly terrifying to the Ildirans, because their home planet, in a system with (surprise) seven suns, is never dark; darkness has a weightiness in their culture even stronger than it does in, er, mainstream American culture. Besides this central plot, there are also sidebars touching on everything from the OCD/PTSD of a woman orphaned as a little girl to a disintegrating marriage to the aftereffects of war on the sentient psyche.

I was looking forward to this book, because my tastes generally incline more toward fantasy epics and I was excited about familiarizing myself with how some of the epic tropes look different in a sci-fi setting. But after I finished the first chapter, I had to hand the book to Husband (the sci-fi reader in the house) and ask “so, are all sci-fi epics this clunky and info-dumpy?”

I felt as though Dark Between the Stars had a lot of potential that wasn’t fully realized. The worldbuilding was genuinely interesting, with core concepts elaborated on in novel ways; for instance, because the Ildiran race is linked through low-level telepathy, every individual can always sense the larger collective, and this filters into their culture through details like the fact that almost all Ildirans fear being alone. The diversity representation was also pretty strong; lots of female characters (some likeable, some unlikeable), lots of physical diversity among the human contingent (including many dark-skinned characters and a paraplegic freighter captain), and I even think I may have spotted a same-sex relationship, though it was left somewhat ambiguous. Finally, there were a number of really likeable characters who I wanted to hear more from… and that, regrettably, is where this review will turn away from praise.

Because the book had so many different plot threads and so many different narrators, I felt as though none of the characters reached their full potential. Every time I found myself getting interested in an individual’s narrative arc, I’d be swept away from them to spend half a dozen chapters on other plotlines I wasn’t as invested in. This is always a risk with multiple viewpoints, but Dark Between the Stars seemed to take the problem to an extreme. I finished the book feeling as though I didn’t know any of the characters much better than I had when I first met them. I also found myself not very interested in the A-plot, the looming shadows of darkness. I was much more excited to read about the tensions between the couple fighting over custody of their son, or the young woman whose reaction to her father’s dying from a disease he contracted as an interplanetary explorer was to secret herself away in a sterilized lab where she intended to find cures for all the diseases in the known universe and then hold the cures for her personal use. I certainly don’t object to wide-ranging stories (I read A Song of Ice and Fire, after all), but it seems to me that if your reader’s dragging her feet every time you try to take her back to your central plot backbone, there may be a flaw in your storytelling.

I also felt like the craft on this book needed work. The prose was flat, without much in the way of either wit or poetry (and I say that as someone who regularly skims through flowery prose), and the explanations of the setting and context were thrown out in chunks that didn’t flow with the narrative at all, particularly in the early chapters. In that regard, this book felt like either a first novel (which I know isn’t the case) or one that was rushed through its editing stage.

I know that there’s been a tremendous amount of controversy during this Hugo season about the contrast between “fun books” and “important books,” and I suspect one of the reasons this one made it onto the ballot is because it’s undeniably in the first category. But I would argue that even undeniably “fun” books with no aspirations to literary merit — like Butcher’s Dresden Files, which the author himself describes as “dopey little wizard books,” or Gabaldon’s Outlander books, which she started as “practice” — should still meet a minimum standard for story construction, writing, and craft if they’re going to be seen as exemplars for our field. This book didn’t meet that standard, and for that reason, it will not be getting my Hugo vote.