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Starplex
Robert J. Sawyer
Red Deer Press, 304 pages

Starplex
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won several Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula and Hominids won the Hugo for best novel. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
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SF Site Review: WWW: Watch
SF Site Review: FlashForward
SF Site Review: WWW: Wake
SF Site Review: Mindscan
SF Site Review: Relativity
SF Site Review: Hybrids
SF Site Review: Hybrids
SF Site Review: Hominids
SF Site Review: Flashforward
SF Site Review: Frameshift
SF Site Review: Calculating God
SF Site Review: Factoring Humanity
SF Site Review: Illegal Alien
SF Site Review: Frameshift

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Big spaceships, alien civilizations, the mysteries of the cosmos, and a story that roams through the vastness of time and space. All of the elements of a big-scale, hard science fiction adventure story are present right from the start of Starplex, Robert J. Sawyer's 1996 novel, now back in print from Red Deer Press. When it comes to piling on a sense of wonder, Starplex is right on point. When it comes to making us care about and identify with the characters living through the adventures of the story, Starplex is a little more problematic. And, interestingly enough, in his introduction to the novel, the author himself gives us some clues as to why that is.

Keith Lansing is the Director of Starplex, a multi-species spaceship on a mission of exploration. (Any similarities to Star Trek are completely intentional.) Their journeys are aided by the discovery of a series of wormhole-like shortcuts that allow for instantaneous travel between some points in space. Who built the shortcuts, and why, is a mystery, but humans and the aliens they've met are using the shortcuts to explore what would otherwise be an area too big for conventional space flight. When the discovery of a new form of space-based life coincides with unexpected conflict between members of the fledgling interstellar society, Lansing is propelled into a series of adventures that confront him with everything from the nature of dark matter to the ultimate fate of the universe.

In that way, Starplex is the very model of a modern hard science fiction novel. Sawyer's intentions, as he states in the introduction, was to write a novel that tied together all the elements of modern cosmology, and to write a novel in which "real aliens could mix with real humans without the whole thing getting confused." He accomplishes the first goal, the second is a bit more of a problem.

It's not that the characters aren't well-developed or recognizable as individuals, it's that they are too, well, ordinary. The Starplex is an extraordinary piece of technology engaged in extraordinary events, that its leaders and crew come off as simply ordinary people makes them feel a little out of place, almost to the point of making the reader wonder how these people came to be in charge of this voyage. Sawyer establishes their credentials as far as training and experience goes, but people who intentionally seek to explore the unknown rarely are ordinary in either their reactions to events or their interactions with other people. Sawyer cites Louis Wu and Teela Brown, two larger-than-life figures from Ringworld, as examples of the kind of characters he was trying to avoid. The problem is there simply isn't anyone in Starplex whose life is as much fun to read about as those of Louis Wu and Teela Brown.

There's an old maxim among science fiction writers to the effect that unusual people doing unusual things in unusual situations is one unusual too many. That rule, as novels like Ringworld have shown, has been severely eroded over the years. What Starplex suggests is that in terms of modern SF, ordinary people doing ordinary things in extraordinary situations is one ordinary too many. It's not impossible to do; Robert Charles Wilson's Spin is a good example of a novel that focuses in on everyday experience in the face of amazing events. But in the case of Starplex, the ordinary concerns of the characters fly in the face of the events they are experiencing, and the reader keeps waiting for them to do something extraordinary, instead of just watching while extraordinary things happen to them. That makes Starplex a science fiction novel which works very well when it's being a science fiction novel full of the wonders of the cosmos, and not so well when it's trying to be a novel about the ordinary lives of ordinary people. It's not so much a failure of intention as it is a failure of execution, and as Sawyer's more recent novels illustrate, he's very capable of giving us characters living through amazing circumstances who, even if they are real humans, are still capable of rising above the ordinary when the story requires it. That's the element that is missing in Starplex, and that's why, in this novel, the sense of wonder at the mysteries of the universe never quite connects at a human level.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson is a firm believer that the mysteries of the universe do have meaning in the daily lives of human beings. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.


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