Starhawk by Jack McDevitt
Starhawk by Jack McDevitt (Ace, 2013) is the seventh novel featuring Priscilla Hutchins whom we last met in Cauldron. In a slightly unusual step, this proves to be a prequel showing us how Hutch first qualified as a pilot and set her foot on the ladder to the success shown in the other novels. Hence, we’re back with the now standard format which is essentially a political thriller set in Earth orbit and outer space now that FTL is up and running. This gives McDevitt the chance to suggest that human nature will essentially remain the same as we progress from now to 2195. For all the trappings of a major space station and the first steps to terraforming a planet in a distant solar system, we will still be parochial and isolationist. Indeed the ordinariness of this future world is continually reflected in aggregated news items as chapter endings. It’s all depressingly familiar.
Thematically, the politics comes down to two issues. The first is the current debate within the GOP between the purists who want small government and the “centrists” who see government as holding the balance between the corporations and the people. In the former camp, there’s no need to increase expenditure on exploring what’s “out there”, when there are so many unsolved problems here on Earth. The priority in the use of a deliberately limited tax revenue should always be the generation of a society in which entrepreneurs can use their muscle to make the world a better place. In the former, there’s an acknowledgement that capitalists tend to be self-interested and will not always take decisions which benefit the people. Government must therefore act as a brake on the pursuit of profit at all costs and force some redistribution of wealth to relieve poverty and provide opportunities for those less well-off. In this case, it might be acceptable to encourage a private corporation to terraform a new world for an overflow of humanity to occupy. This takes pressure off government and provides immense opportunities to people to build new lives for themselves.
This brings us to the second theme which is the potential of the environmental lobby to engage in terrorism for their cause. If we consider the current actions of groups like PETA which manage to get themselves worked up over the current mistreatment of animals, just how much more angry could groups get if the terraforming of this other world was significantly adjusting the oxygen/nitrogen balance and thereby eliminating many plant and animal species? It might lead to acts against the corporation responsible for the terraforming operations and the starships acting in support.
We start off with Hutchins going through her formal certification flight with Captain Jake Loomis to get her captain’s licence. This requires him to test her with hypothetical problems except, of course, their flight soon gets rather more practical as an emergency message comes in. They are required to divert to save a group of young scientists who have “won” a flight as a prize. Unfortunately one of the terrorists has planted a bomb on the ship and they are now stranded in a decaying orbit around an uninhabited world. The point of this introductory section is to identify the serious deficiencies in the then current system for dealing with emergencies. Today, there are teams of volunteers prepared to run up mountains to rescue those in distress. But if it was first necessary to transport these intrepid individuals a significant number of light years at the public’s expense, questions might be asked on whether this was money well spent. Fortunately, if this is rescuing photogenic school children, politicians might see mileage in voting funds for their rescue. But if this had been a ship owned by a corporation, politicians might think it was the responsibility of the corporations to maintain a fleet of rescue ships on stand-by should problems arise. There are not so any votes in using public funds where capitalists have failed to make their own provision (unless the corporations are too big to fail, that is).
The problem with the book is not so much the introduction of these themes to explore, but the amount of time to devote to that exploration. Since readers expect spaceships to zip around the universe doing exciting things, they prefer less time spent on discussing the practical politics of how these trips are paid for. Yet the less time spent on these discussions, the more superficial the politics. It’s the same when it comes to questions of morality. If a terrorist with an agenda that could have some moral validity plants a bomb not expecting casualties, who’s to blame when the more immediate reason for the casualties is a failure in government to send rescue ships in time? Yes these people would not have been at risk but for the bomb, but they could all have been saved if the rescue had been launched in a timely fashion. Picking the bones out of these knotty questions could keep a passel of philosophers dancing on the head of a pin for many a page, but this would not be considered sufficiently appropriate for a science fiction novel with space opera pretensions. Academic credibility counts for little when there are crises to navigate. So our heroic new captain has a host of dangers to confront as she moves from new star to potential superstar status. In the midst of all this, we’re also invited into the life of Jake Loomis who wrestles with his conscience and tries to find some peace of mind.
The result is a good pace to the first section of the novel. It then gets somewhat prosaic in the middle section, but ends with something of a bang (or perhaps the absence of one). I’m inclined to consider Starhawk a success albeit it’s not quite the best McDevitt can produce.