The Dark Beyond the Stars

November 7, 2014
Frank M. Robinson

The Dark Beyond the Stars is a story about life on board the decaying remains of a generation ship, captained by an immortal fanatic. Tasked with exploring the galaxy in search of extraterrestrial life, the Astron and its Captain has been on the job for over two millennia. Utterly and absolutely obsessed with the search for life in space, the Captain is preparing the ship to venture through the Dark, the starless void between two galactic arms — knowing that what remains of the ship will have to be mostly cannibalized and the crew "reduced" to a bare minimum.

Our POV character is a 17-year-old tech assistant named Sparrow, and the story starts with his near-death during a planetary exploration effort. This leaves him with amnesia, and the story concerns his search for identity and meaning on board the ship, which happen to be intimately tied into the larger-scale intrigue and factionalization on board the ship. Given that the crew knows that travelling through the Dark will be the death sentence for both themselves and most of the culture they have created, a mutiny attempt is brewing. However, the Captain is not only the only person who has full command over the ship computer, he is also a near-mythological authority figure who has been commanding it for 2000 years longer than any crew member has even lived.

…and that's how the story starts. I really can't tell much about the plot without spoiling everything, so I won't (you should go read it for yourself; it's a great story). Instead, I'm going to focus on the writing and the setting.

When I started reading it, lots of things annoyed me. I don't like first-person narratives. Giving the protagonist amnesia seemed like a bullshit plot contrivance to dump setting exposition on the reader. There were lots of weird inconsistencies, and certain aspects of the ship seemed to be bizarrely and uselessly "romantic" in a way that didn't seem to make much sense. The first 40 pages or so, I leaned towards giving it two stars: It honestly seemed rather stupid, but at least there were no Ringworld moments. But as the story progressed, all the apparent authorial inconsistencies actually turned out to be in-universe inconsistencies, of the kind you'd expect in a tiny closed society riddled with intrigue. Sparrow's amnesia turned out to be anything but a stupid contrivance to dump exposition about life on the ship, but was in fact an integral part of the plot itself. Even the first-person narrative turned out to be the absolutely right choice (in part because of some of the revelations directly related to aforementioned amnesia).

There's only very little technical exposition, and none of it involves technobabble or infodumps. The prose is simple and "lightweight" (for lack of a better term); it moves the story along without encumbering it. The tone and pacing varies dramatically and appropriately; the reveals all come in the appropriate places (some with long lead-ups, some utter surprises), the storytelling technique is downright masterful. One sequence near the end literally had me in tears.

The two primary characters are the protagonist and the Captain. The Captain is (obviously) the villain in the story, but he's a well-rounded tragic villain with understandable motives — and who is, in fact, himself a victim of forces beyond his control. An utterly devoted fanatic consumed by obsession, he reminds me of Captain Ahab and Khan Noonien Singh. His devotion, however, doesn't simply encompass his mission: He's also driven by a profound sense of duty towards the Earth he left behind, and towards the entire generations of crew members who lived and died serving under him. He's appropriately distant and near-mythological (he is a 2000-year-old immortal), but at the same time, he's oddly (and painfully) relatable. What makes his position all the more tragic is that he, out of duty and belief in life, is risking the destruction of what might be the last life left in the universe — and he has no real choice in the matter.

The setting is appropriately bleak — life on board a generation ship, being an entirely closed ecosystem, is necessarily extremely static (and probably rather depressing). Space is hostile and lifeless; the ship hasn't found even an alien microbe during its millennia-long search. The little culture that has developed on board the ship is incredibly rich and detailed. Each generation has a consistent naming scheme; members of Sparrow's generation all have bird names (other characters from his generation include Thrush, Snipe, Crow, Heron and Eagle). Earlier generations were named after characters from Shakespeare plays, Biblical characters, African mammals and various other references that keeps their culture linked to far-distant Earth.

But it's also a culture in which life is so revered, owing to its fragility, that violence and murder is almost unthinkable to the current generation of crew members, shaped both by culture and by the kind of eugenics that would probably arise on a generation ship. It's an essentially kind and compassionate culture. It's a sexually open culture, and most of the crew members (including Sparrow and the Captain) are bisexual. It's a culture that has its own stage plays, art and music (apart from what they've inherited from Earth). It's a tiny little canned oasis of life and culture in the endless, dead, uncaring void of space, and it serves as a perfect counterpoint to the bleakness of the situation.

There's no laser guns, no hostile aliens and no spaceship battles, but this is still very much an epic story, in the truest sense of the word. Highly recommended, and you will be richly rewarded if you forgive the mildly annoying inconsistencies in the beginning.

Powered by Plutonium