I was recently reflecting that it had been quite a long time since I read a science fiction novel. As a kid, I read a few of the classics; Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Frank Herbert’s Dune stand out most significantly to me. Short stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov also linger in my memories.
It had been while since a story in that tradition had come my way, but I realized that I’d seen one years ago that I’d let get past me. To wit, The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank M. Robinson. I have no knowledge of the man or the rest of his body of work, but the premise intrigued me and there was a favourable blurb on the back of the book from William Gibson, who is the reigning king of cyberpunk, one of science fiction’s most current subsidiaries. So, after having idly glanced through it as a teen, I hunted it down again.
Published in 1991, the Dark Beyond the Stars begins with seventeen-year-old Sparrow suffering an accident during an expedition to an unknown planet and suffering total retrograde amnesia. As he recovers physically, he needs to learn from first principles who and where he is.
The ‘where’ is the starship Astron. For two thousand years the vast vessel has plied the stars with one objective: to find alien life. And so far it hasn’t succeeded. The ship has been continually on the go for generations. Huge amounts of it have fallen into disuse as the crew has dwindled over time. There are only two constants: the mission, and the captain, who, conditioned to be immortal, has led the ship continually this entire time. He remains stoically devoted to the mission, but the sheer endless tedium and failure to find anything in the vast expanse of the universe had made much of the crew weary and cynical.
A crisis arises even as Sparrow is getting a handle on his environment and his relationships with the people around him, who all know him but who he cannot remember anymore. The Astron’s new course is toward a promising new cluster of stars, but there is a huge gulf – the Dark – that will take generations to cross, and the engineers and technicians in the crew know that the Astron, needing to replenish materials and supplies at times and in pretty bad shape to start with, won’t survive the crossing. As Sparrow begins to reconstruct his life and relationships, he finds himself drawn into conspiracies and conflicts of loyalty, and a race against time to save the ship and its people.
Like a lot of perfectly good science fiction novels, I found the prose a bit dry. Robinson’s writing style is much more straightforward than, say, David Weber’s, and his strengths are in dialogue and emotions. Describing events, I found my concentration slipping at times, so that I tended to take in the scenes in fairly broad strokes. In general, this is a problem I seem to have with some novels where I have trouble connecting and I feel like I’m taking in the story from a great distance.
Nevertheless, although this story seems to linger in obscurity, I found it had quite a lot of good stuff to offer. At first the amnesia situation seems like a convenience to justify lots of exposition, and it certainly does that, but it also turns out to serve the story, and lead to a mystery underlying the conflict of captain and crew that works very well.
The characters are all pretty interesting people, and there is some neat drama to be had, although again it isn’t as deep as some, at least to me.
What I found particularly interesting is the psychology of the crew. There’s an overriding sense of weariness throughout the story, of a fundamental loss of human joy and purpose that the crew work hard at combating but is always there.
This is compounded by the situation that informs it; this mission has been going on for two millennia, searching for some life, any life, and hasn’t found a single germ. This is actually an option I’d never really thought of. I’ve seen stories where the aliens are benevolent, like in Star Trek; malevolent, like in Alien; I’ve seen them be overpoweringly strong, like in Childhood’s End; I’ve seen them be just another species, like in On Basilisk Station, and sometimes they’re just impossibly weird, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s works. But I have to admit that I’d never really thought of the idea that aliens would just be…not there.
Throughout the book, the debate goes on between characters about whether the math favours other life or not, and both arguments (ones made in real-life science) are eerily plausible. You share in the crushing depression and loneliness that the Astron’s crew feels as a result of their bad luck, and the maddening knowledge that you can never be sure. The question is, is the grand goal of finding alien life worth wearing out your own life and those of the people around you?
The Dark Beyond the Stars turned out to be a pleasant surprise and a nice refresher on science fiction. The best science fiction isn’t about space or aliens or starships; it’s about us, and Frank M. Robinson has that down. The prose is rather dry, but the story it forms is quite good, the themes and emotions are all there; the story is actually quite original and comes with a small but really neat twist at the end. It’s a bit of a slog sometimes but a story well worth reading.