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Altered Starscape
Andromedan Dark #1
by Ian Douglas
Harper/Voyager, $7.99, 384pp
Published: October 2016

I haven't read anything by Ian Douglas before but at least this is the first book in a new series, called 'Andromedan Dark', the sixth by Ian Douglas, which is a pseudonym for William H. Keith Jr., who also writes other series under his own name and as Keith Douglass, Robert Cain and H. Jay Riker. Most are military science fiction and space opera, though there are exceptions. He's a prolific author.

And that kind of surprises me, because, while the prose here is smooth and feels like it flowed easily from an experienced pen, it also feels like it's a debut novel from an author who's devoured so much science, noted down every cool concept he came across and threw every single one of them into what could have been an overambitious debut novel.  There are so many high sf concepts here that I can't help but wonder what he found for his other books. Half this book is footnote explanation not put in footnotes.

It begins quickly. The opening chapters do establish a tantalising scenario, but that scenario is almost hidden behind the astronomical jargon. It's 2162 and the human race hasn't just made first contact, it has been invited to join the Galactic Coadunation, a coalition of millions of alien races, who are wildly ahead of us technologically, even though we've hardly been slouching on that front. We begin as the Tellus Ad Astra, a gigantic ship that feels reminiscent of a pair of Ramas attached together, with over a million scientists, diplomats and soldiers on board, not to forget the AIs and a variety of genetically modified humans tailored for specialist environments, makes a series of jumps towards the galactic core to open up our future.

At least, that's what I got when I filtered out all the O'Neill colonies, Lagrange points, Dyson spheres, Bishop rings, and what-have-you. Douglas even invents a few more that follow the naming convention, like Alcubierre drives. We might excuse this in the early chapters, because Douglas has to set a scene and, if high sf concepts are going to play a major part in this story, then we ought to be let in on what they are pretty quickly, right?

However, it just keeps on going. It's incessant. As the page count adds up, Douglas keeps throwing on more and more of these concepts until the whole novel starts to buckle under their weight. One page it's Einstein ghosts, the next Tipler machines, then Lorentzian manifolds, Toba bottlenecks and Nassin devices. I'd heard of some of these and knew what a few of them were, but many were new to me and I often found myself shifting to study mode. What's an Alderson disk? What's a Fermi predator? What's the Lense-Thirring effect?

The thing is that each of these concepts could, and in many instances has, prompted an entire sf novel on its own. Douglas even namechecks a bunch of them. In addition to Newton's third law, the uncanny valley and the Fermi paradox, he references a lot of Asimov: the three laws of robotics, slidewalks and the Encyclopedia Galactica. Niven's Ringworld gets a callout, as does Abbott's Flatland. He names an orbital naval base after Arthur C. Clarke. Everyone writes about the technological singularity, but I'd often find myself wondering about who conjured up drop tubes, star lifting and frame dragging. Were these scientific hypotheses or science fiction imaginations?

And, eventually I remembered that there's a story going on. You can see how this stuff can take over. Ah yes, there's tension between the military leader of the expedition, Grayson St. Clair, surely a nod to the Honor Harrington series, and the diplomatic leader, whose name I forget because we're always going to be on St. Clair's side, even when we find that he shacked up after his divorce with a sentient sex doll, who (rather than which) he took with him on this pivotal mission. There's a place in Douglas's universe for diplomacy, but the military are always going to make the best decisions.

But hey, hypercubes and string theory and Cartesian dualism and ghosts in the machine and god tech and cybernetic marines and... hang on, where was I?

The pivotal moment in the book is that the last jump towards the galactic core fails and the Terrus Ad Astra falls into a black hole and emerges mostly intact but four billion years into the future. That's so far that the Andromeda Galaxy is drifting into the Milky Way and it's likely that the planet Earth isn't even there anymore. At least they have a million highly talented people, so their priority ought to be built around the fact that they're all that's left of the human race.

Instead, St. Clair finds every episodic storyline in the entire runs of multi-season science fiction shows pretty much all at once and has to deal with all of them. There are multi-dimensional beings, godlike AIs, programmable matter... and more BDOs (big dumb objects) than are included on the entire page on Wikipedia on the acronym.

There's good to be found here. I like Douglas's ability to conjure up alien life that's truly alien and not just us with antennae and green skin. He does that a number of times here and each is impressive. It's fair to say that the action is excellent too and he believably builds many of his little concepts into a far wider framework. I liked uniform packs and secretary implants and... but we're back in another rabbit hole.

The bad is the overkill. Every time one thing would do, one high concept or one megastructure or one adventure, Douglas throws a dozen at us. For instance, we all know that falling into a black hole is not likely to be a good thing and it's a great opportunity for dramatic tension. But in an Ian Douglas book, we don't focus on endearing Disney robots, we focus on the science. To him, that's an SMBH and we're suddenly learning about shiftscatter, gravitationally distorted spacetime and decelerative fields.

That was two paragraphs, by the way. The next page manages to cram optical distortion, star clouds, event horizons, accretion disks and gravitational fields into a single sentence, leaving gravitic drives and electromagnetic shielding for further down the page. The next few trawl in binary stars, habitat cylinders, hull stresses, cosmic rays, gamma radiation, ultra-high velocity dust particles, ergospheres, the speed of light, relatavistic time dilation, spaghettification (yes indeed), Einstein ghosts... and that's a heck of a lot for a ten-page scene in a single chapter.

The worst thing I can say about this book is that those ten pages are absolutely not an anomaly. This entire book plays out like that. There was a point where I actually put the book down for a moment to see if I could conjure up a single astronomical concept that Douglas hadn't already covered. I came up with the Goldilocks zone, which is the range of distance from a star in which a planet must sit in order for life as we know it to develop. And, I swear to any god you care to name, Douglas referenced it on the next goddamn page!

This may be your thing. I can't say 'Altered Starscape' didn't entertain me, because it did and I would not be averse to reading the sequel, 2017's 'Darkness Falling', but it really is too much. It's an overkill of overkill. It's like a 400 page glossary to a year's worth of 'Scientific American', 'Popular Mechanics' and 'Astronomy' magazines with some battle scenes thrown in to keep it from becoming too dry. It's a rather exhausting read. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Ian Douglas click here

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