March 6, 2022

Review: Stars and Bones

Stars and Bones Stars and Bones by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really liked the author's Embers of War trilogy, so I pre-ordered this book. Now that I've read it, I don't regret doing that....but I also don't like this as much as the previous books.

Mainly because the worldbuilding is neither logical nor well thought out. We have here the tale of the entire human race being forced off Earth to a fleet of a thousand ships, called Arks, and condemned to wander the galaxy for the rest of their days by a cloud-like spacefaring entity that is basically an all-powerful god. Said humans were in the process of destroying themselves by nuclear war and the "angel of the Benevolence," as the entity is ironically (sarcastically) named, was content to sit back and let them do so because it knew life and intelligence would eventually rise again on Earth (this being lives billions of years and thinks very long term as a result). It spared the human race only because someone performed an experiment that proved humans could generate wormholes, which made the species interesting enough for the angel to allow us to live...but instead of making us stay on the planet and repair the environmental damage done to it, it yanked us off and forced us on board the Arks instead. How exactly is that going to solve the problem of a decaying industrial civilization and all the chemical/nuclear/environmental catastrophes that will generate, if the Angels of the Benevolence are so worried about living biospheres they won't allow the human race to live on one ever again?

And also, circling back to the original triggering incident, they sure were content to let a nuclear war destroy the present biosphere, which is a completely different thing than the previous natural extinction events--volcanism, asteroid impacts, etc--that the planet has endured. I didn't think about this inconsistency before, but it's glaringly obvious. The "angel," Raijin, should have stopped the war in any case. Then if you're going to have an all-powerful not-so-benevolent being in your story to begin with, it should have made humans face up to both their destructive tribal nature and what they were actually doing to the planet, rather than providing a thousand Arks and letting them sail gaily away from the consequences of their actions. This was mentioned briefly in the book and then dropped, never to be follow up upon. Which of course would have made for an entirely different story, but now that I'm tearing into this one I'm feeling more and more dissatisfied with it.

This is all background, of course, but the illogic of it didn't sit well with me. This story takes place seventy-five years after the fact, when the scout ship the Couch Surfer stumbles across a planet with an ancient ship on it, and the crew investigating is eaten by invisible aliens. Another ship, the Furious Ocelot, is sent to find out what happened, and its captain is Eryn King, our protagonist. (There are a few other viewpoint chapters as well, although I don't really see the point of them except to infodump, as all of those characters get killed pretty quickly along the way.) The aliens soon become an existential threat to the fleet, as they are a furious consuming nanogoo that starts infecting the Thousand Arks of the Continuance (the name of the human fleet as a whole) and causing widespread death and destruction.

The story of this book is okay, but the worldbuilding is not. I also found a fairly serious copyediting error that I'm surprised was let slip through. One of the other redshirts viewpoint characters is a detective on board another Ark who investigates a murder. He's a typical hard-bitten noir type: "He might dress like a peacock, but Genet and I made a good team. We'd been working together for a couple of years now, and I reckoned I understood him better than I ever understood either of my ex-wives." (p. 159) But about sixty pages further on, this is blatantly contradicted: "I never married," Sheppard said. "I tell people it's because of the job, but we really aren't that busy most of the time, and so I guess that in reality, I just never met the right person." (p. 226) Seriously? And this book comes from a major publisher, too. I also seem to remember someone stating that "dogs, cats, goats, birds and insects" were the only animals allowed to accompany humans from Earth (no horses? Are you kidding me?) but again further on, one ark is mentioned as having cows. The worldbuilding is already shaky to begin with, and this does it no good.

(And Eryn also has a talking cat on her ship, with the mechanism of an implant in his brain and a collar translating his thoughts that allows him to "speak." Which is fine, but most cats I've known--unless this one was genetically engineered for higher intelligence, which isn't stated--have nowhere near the intellect to match what this cat spouts. This would be far more realistic if the only things this cat says were "Food now," "Pet now," and "Don't fucking touch me.")

The author does say he had a helluva time finishing this book because of Covid. Well, I wish he had taken even more time with it, because as it stands right now, it's a bit of a mess.

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