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Starplex, Robert J. Sawyer, Ace, 1996, 289 pp.

Starplex is an astonishing novel, hard science fiction with heart, a former serial with a grand overarching vision. This book contains many of Sawyer's trademarks -- addictive readability, a frank engagement with ethical questions, and a fondness for Canadiana -- as well as a few weaknesses, some due to the by-the-numbers character development, others to his commitment to hard science. However, the grand sweep of the story and Sawyer's graceful manipulation of the reader's sympathies combine to make this a fine book, a masterful answer to the attention brought to him by his Nebula Award for The Terminal Experiment.

Keith is the director of Starplex, a giant mothership designed for exploration of the "shortcuts" -- a network of portals spread across the galaxy by some unknown, vanished race. The shortcuts can only be activated from the destination (there's a central one near the galactic centre), in effect protecting non-spacefaring races from interference. So when a new shortcut is mysteriously activated, Starplex is sent to investigate. The plot maintains a breakneck speed for the course of the novel, and is cleverly structured to grab our interest with a flashforward near the beginning. Sawyer keeps us onside during all the twists and turns and makes the hard science important to the events and to the characters. I can see why this would have made an effective serial -- Sawyer can grab and hold the reader's attention with the greatest of ease, and not let go until the gratifying conclusion.

Starplex has four sentient races onboard: human, dolphin, Ib, and Waldahud. The other three races are portrayed with fascinating detail (although the characterization was sometimes less certain, more on that in a minute). The Ibs' biology is detailed, and becomes gravely important during the final scene of a character named Boxcar. The Waldahud's sexual habits become crucial for plot wrinkles to do with the possible onset of war. The dolphin affinity for "swimming" wildly through space provides a crucial advantage during the exciting battle sequences in Chapter 17. The darmats, when we meet them, are also interesting, and become integral to the working out of the story. Even a race of the future (yes, Sawyer throws in time travel on top of everything else) comes into play, and the knowledge that we gain there gives the ending, with Keith and Rissa's rededication ceremony, an edge of melancholy not usually found in hard science fiction.

I enjoyed Starplex's examination of ethical issues. Psychological (and sometimes physical) conflict occurs between the various races, but the four races onboard Starplex are all members of the "Commonwealth," which is itself quite an accomplishment. This is either an optimistic look at the future, or a bit of a stretch considering our past. I especially appreciated the buildup towards Keith's pacifist decision on p. 257. He gets advice from an Ib, Rhombus, who recommends patching things up with the Waldahud: "No matter how bumpy the terrain, smooth it in your mind" (245-6). And what are Keith's internal reasons? Well, he mentions the movie Casablanca, and he remembers the moment earlier in the book where a shortcut flung Starplex millions of light-years out of the galaxy. He could cup the Milky Way in his hand, and the perspective gained there allowed him to transcend petty reasons for war. His whole decision ties in neatly with his ongoing midlife crisis -- "Races did grow up" (258), he thinks to himself. It confers hope on his own personal life, as well as on humanity.

Sawyer likes to include many references to Canadian people, culture, and so on. Keith captained a ship named the Lester B. Pearson, we find out on p. 254 about the Hudson's Bay Company of the future, and other obvious signifiers are sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes this can get mildly humorous, like near the end (pp. 280-1) where Keith's troubling midlife sex-life problem is resolved (here we find out that reading a Robertson Davies novel is better than adultery). On the whole, I find this tendency in Sawyer's writing very refreshing, and indicative of his general refusal to compromise any of his unique characteristics.

The book has two flaws, and one thing that peeved me. Starplex was serialized in Analog, and the inherent structural problem of any serial can be easily identified here -- cliffhanger endings for every chapter. The cliffhangers got stale fast, especially when they were easily resolved or only a matter of perception. Early on, Sawyer uses them effectively to build tension and interest -- "At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the fate of the universe is in question" (19) -- but later on, they simply frustrate the reader. My personal pick for the silliest: "But Starplex was surrounded on all sides by darmats, and the ship itself looked dead, all the lights in its windows dark" (268). How will our hero save the day now? Read the next chapter and you'll find out.

The characterization of Keith felt awkward at times. Sawyer draws Keith with very obvious brushstrokes, and a midlife crisis as a metaphor for humanity's crisis feels stretched or mechanically applied. Keith also seemed like a bit of a pawn in the service of the gosh-wow hard science fiction plot -- it's hard to pinpoint the problem exactly, and Sawyer is certainly efficient at characterization. I also detected a few points where the depiction of the alien races shaded into categorical racial characteristics. The Waldahuds are, without exception, annoying to humans, the Ibs are efficient, and so on. Sometimes Sawyer uses this for humorous effect, like the fact that all three other races despise the human tendency to use acronyms. And it can be a handy shortcut, like with the conversation on pp. 265-6 when a dolphin is explaining his entire race's attitude towards humans (which is in fact a fascinating section). But as much as we all feel free to generalize about humanity, few people act according to that template (a generalized statement, of course), and I felt uneasy when the line between specific beings and their race got blurry.

Hard science fiction: whether you like it or hate it, it's an influential subgenre. Sawyer is an articulate practitioner of hard science, and I'm filled with admiration for his extensive research and knowledge. Sawyer knows how to use exposition to build tension while the characters are waiting for new information or research, but other times, he gets tempted to say too much, and the exposition gets very clunky. On the whole, he handles the exposition efficiently, but he falls completely into the biggest trap for hard science fiction. It's a logical flaw, and perhaps even an unresolveable paradox. The definition of hard science fiction demands that the writer extrapolate from the best of scientific knowledge as we know it today. But unless the setting is near future, there would be inevitable advances beyond what we know, some of them vast leaps, others less significant, but on the whole creating a densely populated present. How would a scientist predict the scientific advances of the future? It becomes anybody's guess quite rapidly, but if the writer supplies no guesses whatsoever, the gap is glaring. For example, when the characters in Starplex are discussing galaxy formation (224), they refer exclusively to pre-1996 Earth astronomers. The dictates of hard science fiction ruin the plausibility here for me, placed as this scene is in the context of four sentient races and a few decades in the future. Sawyer's not alone in this -- predicting where science will go is very difficult (read: impossible).

However, these three things I've mentioned don't detract from how fondly I think of Starplex. Sawyer uses a heady mix of big ideas and crafty storytelling, and he challenges the reader intellectually while grabbing their emotional sympathy. Quite the accomplishment.

First posted: March 29, 1998; Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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