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Eclipse
K.A. Bedford
Edge, 311 pages

Eclipse
K.A. Bedford
K.A. Bedford was born in Fremantle, Australia, and attended Murdoch University in Perth where he studied writing, theater, and philosophy prior to becoming actively involved with the Australian SF community. He currently lives with his wife, Michelle, near Perth, Australia. His debut novel was Orbital Burn. Eclipse is the winner of the 2005 Aurealis Award for best science fiction novel.

Modem Noise: K.A. Bedford's Blog
SF Site Review: Orbital Burn
SF Site Review: Orbital Burn

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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"This time tomorrow," thinks James Dunne, newly-minted graduate of the Royal Interstellar Service Academy, "I'll be an officer serving aboard a starship, charting unexplored space!" It's his life dream, untarnished despite the horrors of his Academy years -- an ordeal of rote learning, ritual hazing, and unremitting brutality that would give Pat Conroy nightmares. But the Academy is behind Dunne now, along with the tragedies of his family life and his nagging sense of his own inferiority. The rest of his life can begin.

Things don't quite work out that way. Assigned to Her Majesty's Starship Eclipse, Dunne quickly discovers that a junior officer isn't much better off than a lowly cadet -- beatings and all. Ferguson, the quite possibly psychotic Executive Officer, detests him on sight; the captain, Rudyard, is a bit more cordial, but Dunne can't help noticing that he's completely mad. Once again, Dunne finds himself at the bottom of the heap, given the crappiest jobs and the most undesirable assignments, in constant physical peril from superiors who think he needs to be taught a lesson. His only allies are fellow Academy graduate Sorcha Riley, who, as a woman in a man's service, has her own battles to fight; and Janning, third in command, who treats Dunne with kindness and even respect.

Then, at the edge of unexplored space, an apparently derelict alien vessel is discovered. Dunne is assigned to the exploration team -- not in recognition of his abilities, but because he's disposable. Inside the vessel, the team finds mysterious orb-shaped objects, an inexplicable drive system, and clumps of centipede-like aliens -- mostly dead, though there are a few survivors. The survivors are brought on board -- a first contact situation that triggers a chain of violent events that will change not just Dunne's life, but the lives of everyone in human-inhabited space. For the alien vessel is the harbinger of something much, much stranger... a reality as far superior to humanity as humanity believes it is superior to the insects the aliens resemble.

If you've spotted echoes of Heinlein -- starship troopers, alien bugs -- and C.S. Forester -- mad captains and savage mistreatment of junior officers -- you're half-correct. K.A. Bedford turns these references on their heads, presenting a Royal Interstellar Service whose entrenched cruelties and every-man-for-himself survival ethic are the opposite of Heinlein's paen to male bonding, and a universe in which, unlike Horatio Hornblower, the good guy's superior intelligence and moral fiber not only doesn't win out in the end, but proves to be a serious liability. The sadistic officers, the incompetent commanders, the xenophobic rank and file, the violence and the treachery and the sleazy politicking, all add up to a deeply misanthropic portrayal of the dark side of human nature, totally unaltered by the wonders of high technology and the realities of an interplanetary society. Human beings, Bedford seems to be saying -- wherever they go, there they are.

Furthering this theme, the author presents a far future civilization that, comprising planets rather than countries and spanning light years rather than oceans, more or less reproduces the nasty real-world politics of right now. We got some glimpses of this in Bedford's previous novel, Orbital Burn, which is set in the same universe, though several decades earlier; in Eclipse, we're given the whole picture: the populous Asiatic Cooperative Metasphere, a scientific and economic juggernaut that threatens galactic domination; the nationalistic Unity Europa, deeply concerned with preserving its European bloodlines; the religious enclaves, where Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Christians live without interference from other faiths, but still can't refrain from internal strife; the many splinter groups clinging to old ethnic identities and the hostilities that go with them. Dunne's own Home System Community, with its virtual monarch and backwater planets, resembles a slightly shabby Commonwealth. Every one of these cultural entities is haunted by the memory of Earth, which, more than a century ago, simply vanished into thin air. Dodgy science? Alien aggression? An act of God? No one's sure. But rather than reaching for solidarity in that catastrophic loss, post-Earth humanity is as much at odds as ever -- and, despite its new fear of alien incursion, just as arrogantly certain of its central importance to the universe. A rude awakening is in order.

Bedford is still finding his novelistic feet. The writing is occasionally rough, and the pace drags in the early chapters, with extended infodumps that, while thematically essential for what comes later, could have been more artfully incorporated. But these stylistic and structural issues are outweighed by the interesting themes, the pitch-black take on life in the interstellar service, and the unexpected turnings of the plot, which never quite goes where you think it will and builds to a challenging conclusion. Eclipse is an intelligent novel that will leave readers with much to think about.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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