Sheffield, Charles. 1999. Starfire. New York: Bantam.

Reviewed 26 May 2000

Starfire (cover) Mr. Sheffield has an excellent reputation as a writer of "hard" science fiction. Starfire is his latest book-length effort. Starfire is far from a bad book; however, examining it with a jaundiced eye reveals both many of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of contemporary "hard" science fiction—and not incidentally demonstrates that today's "hard" science fiction really isn't "hard" in the traditional sense.

As is virtually mandatory these days, Starfire is part of a series that appears to be at least a trilogy. The backstory involves creation of a supernova of Alpha Centauri—a possibility explicitly denied by current astrophysics—and the aftermath of the lightspeed radiation. Disastrous as the gamma rays et alia would be, Starfire is concerned with something potentially much more dangerous: the particulate flux a few years later. (Keep in mind that current astrophysics posits that all atoms heavier than 55Fe come from supernovas or their equivalent.) Radiation can be deadly, but is subject to inverse-square attenuation over a distance of 1.3 parsecs slightly more than 10% of the Kessel Run. Particles, on the other hand, would have virtually the same energy as at the source—interstellar friction and inherent gravitational energy are roughly balanced by Sol's gravity.

Starfire shows a scientist running the world (or at least the US): the President is Celine Tanaka, a survivor of the (backstory) ill-fated Mars expedition. The irony, though, is that she doesn't get to be a scientist anymore; instead, she much more resembles Sam Lowry's first supervisor in Information Retrieval (Brazil), running around making snap decisions based on the little information provided by subordinates. Neither is the other central character acting as a scientist. Maddy Wheatstone is Sheffield's equivalent of the "Best and Brightest" of the 1960s, but this time employed by the Big Evil Corporation. There is the requisite cadré of mad scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, innocent bystanders, and so on to flesh out the novel, but the only other characters with any independent life are a "dirty tricks" operative (also employed by Big Evil Corporation) and an armchair detective with a past right out of M. This cast of characters and cardboard must, of course, save the world.

Where Starfire begins to diverge from the engineering-schematic, Professor Superscience lecture, hardware at the expense of character development model of "hard" science fiction is in its very structure. Mr. Sheffield made the unfortunate choice to intercut diary entries from the armchair detective with other narrative cuts. On the whole, it's an unsatisfactory method of telling the story, as there is little continuity from scene to scene. While not exclusive to "hard" science fiction, this misguided attempt to create a sense of simultaneity seems to be the only model acceptable. There is far too much head-hopping to maintain, or even develop, any real sense of urgency.

Then there's the unfortunate forced graft of a romance between Maddy and the central engineering figure. That's not to say that romance (or explicit sex) is out of bounds in "hard" science fiction—just that this particular one is. I found implausible Maddy's disposal of her alpha-male career path for the "love" of an engineer that develops under crisis conditions with a barely detectable return from the engineer. It's not the romance; it's the willingness to throw everything else away. And without that disposal, the novel fails.

For, in the end, the hard science background is just an excuse to play "hide the evidence" (and, contrariwise, repeatedly shove some of it under the reader's nose so obviously that one must wonder why the bright characters in the novel didn't note it) in a serial-murder mystery. The "hard" science has been reduced to Clarke's Law magic ("Any sufficiently advanced technology . . ."), and even Professor Superscience and his protegé cannot explain their escape from the particulate storm's potential effects. The only significant linkage is the "discovery" that the supernova's effects are focused directly on Earth (a neat bit of "shooting"). This discovery is thrown away so early that it must form a major part of the structure for the sequel. The most obvious conclusion is that Sol has been found suitable for some advanced alien civilization's next agriculture project, and Alpha Centauri just happened to be the nearest fertilizer (or perhaps seed) plant. We'll just have to see.

This is what has happened to "hard" science fiction. Quantum physics has made its way into sophomore organic chemistry texts; we all depend on vast arrays of information-processing power that, in many ways, leave both HAL and Mike on the scrapheap; chemistry and higher mathematics have infiltrated into even non-major undergraduate courses in the life sciences; and so on. These changes have both closed off many avenues of inquiry and intimidated "hard" science fiction writers with the fear that their stories will become quickly and easily dated. (Given that there's no backlist anymore, that's not really much of a burden; that, however, is not the writers' fault.)

So where does that leave Starfire? It's difficult to judge a mid-series book fairly. Of that species, Starfire is far, far better than average. The failure to integrate the science, the characters, the politics, and the mystery keep it from being better than merely good (on my scale).

Overall rating: 4 stars
Good.
This book is a pleasant enough reading experience (I refuse to use "read" as a noun), but simply does not stand up to much examination. Given the long development path of real science, I find the choppy structure—which is all too typical of what gets published in commercial fiction these days—contradicts the underlying events too thoroughly to keep the flavor of science and engineering. The characters' actions are too often inconsistent with their backgrounds; real people are like that sometimes, too, but not quite so woodenly. Worth reading, but will perhaps make more sense after Mr. Sheffield finishes the series.


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