Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Series Review: Star Carrier by Ian Douglas

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I'm a pretty big fan of good military science fiction. I'm willing to enjoy and digest a wide variety of the genres' variations, from pulpy classics like Starship Troopers to much grittier material by authors such as Peter F. Hamilton, as well as newer writers like John Scalzi, the writer of Old Man's War and the books which followed. I've even digested way too many of Games Workshop's Warhammer: 40,000 military sci-fi novels, which are so far from "hard science fiction" as to make them essentially fantasy novels set in the far future of this universe.

The Star Carrier series features the "space navies" of the 25th century doing battle against the proxy fleets of the massive Sh'daar Empire, a galaxy-spanning alien domination that purports to be half a billion years old. Over the course of the three novels that form the first saga, so to speak, of the series, the America battlegroup (named after the Star Carrier that forms the flagship of the group) takes the fight to the enemy. The Sh'daar have been at war with the people of Earth for several decades now, slowly shrinking the fledgling Earth "bubble" of space. Almost 40 years ago, emissaries from the Sh'daar informed Humanity that they were advancing too fast, technologically, and they must become part of the Empire and stagnate their technological growth, or face annihilation. Humanity, being the plucky fellows that we are, refused, and so...war happened.

I don't want to give away any spoilers, because the final resolution of the plot is actually pretty interesting, if a little convoluted. Douglas has clearly done his homework regarding astronomy and spaceflight, especially with regards to not only the vast distances in space, but the vast time that space needs to be measured in. The ideaof the Sh'daar being half a billion years old boggles the minds of the humans, but when it comes to space itself, half a billion years isn't really all that long. By the end of the series, you may find your perspective on time and evolution and technological advancement has changed somewhat.

With regards to the "military" part of "military science fiction", Douglas doesn't hold back. There are a number of pretty spectacularly-epic space battles; huge dogfights between fighters, immense brawls between kilometer-long capital ships, and everything in between. Some of these battles feel like the better space battles of the various Star Wars movies, with gigantic ships exploding and crippled fighters cartwheeling past, energy beams and nuclear-tipped missiles and kinetic kill projectiles slashing through space. Douglas has done enough homework to come up with plausible technologies behind all of his advancements, so it's not just "blasters" and "thrusters" and "shields", but very specific and thought-out ideas that make sense. While you can't necessarily call them "hard sci-fi", the ideas are ones that have been bandied about for years now as plausible future advancements that we might one day achieve without breaking any of what we consider to be the fundamental laws of physics.

There are a few points that bother me about this series, though. Douglas is one of those authors who feels the need to give you a review of pretty much every character background and advanced technology every book, and sometimes re-describes things even in the same book. Once one fighter is launched via the g-forces that spin the grav-hab spokes of the star carrier, accelerating at .5 Gs, after dropping into the launch tube through a permeable nanoseal matrix, we don't need to read about it again...and again...and again. By the third novel, I found myself skimming a lot of the bits between stuff actually happening, because it tended to be backfill. I understand the idea that you should always write a novel as if it is the first time the reader has been introduced to the world, but in today's book market, I feel like this is less of an issue; it is far more trivial a matter to find and buy the first book in a series that catches your eye, than being forced to start an interesting series at book 2 or 3 because you simply can't find book 1. Because of this, I feel like this style of writing has become a little archaic, and especially in Douglas' case, adds a lot of unnecessary padding to the later books.

One major complaint I also have is that the three books I read were not very well proofed, at all. There were a number of typos, mis-matched words, and other errors in each of the three books, enough (one every couple of chapters at least) that after I began to notice it regularly, I had to go back to Amazon and re-confirm that I was reading a book put out by a major publishing house, and not an indie author. In fact, even if it was an indie author, I'd be a little concerned about his proof-reading, because the errors were common enough that I'd expect him to get dinged in the reviews. That this is the case in a book that'd be sold in bookstores and other normal "trad-pub" venues, and backed by Harper-Collins, goes a long way to show that, just because someone is traditionally published, it doesn't mean their book is magically nurtured and polished by a team of experts until it has become some kind of flawless literary gem. Frankly, whoever edited this series should be fired.

Overall this was an entertaining series that could have used a real editor, one who'd have worked with Douglas to attend to not just the proofreading issues, but some of the clunkier bits of the writing, such as the techno-explanations. This is, however, balanced by a pretty action-packed series with a lot of battles and cool tech and ancient alien civilizations. I'd call this recommended, but with reservations.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm finding a bit of the same in the Destroyermen series. I ended up scanning sections of the fourth book because I'd seen it before in the series.

James Reasoner said...

A lot of the major publishers don't put much effort into proofing their e-book editions. Not long ago I read the e-book edition of a science fiction novel from the 80s put out by the original publisher that obviously was scanned, OCRed, and barely glanced at by anyone before they published it. Most of the indie authors I read do a much better job of proofing, probably because they know they have to.