Science fiction is unique in that it requires practice not only to write, but to read. Along with fantasy and alternate-reality fiction, science fiction relies heavily on worldbuilding to create a compelling universe. While strong characters can make a sci-fi novel good, only the best worldbuilding can make it great.
Because sci-fi stories often take place in a completely new universe, the reader needs a lot of information about the world; indeed, one of the best things about science fiction is piecing together the world from context and clues from the author. Good sci-fi will not spoon-feed information, but will simply use vocabulary as the context of the story needs it. In short, science fiction is a genre of induction, and Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars contains plenty of it.
The Dark Between the Stars is an excellent debut to Anderson’s new series. Taking place twenty years after the conclusion of Anderson’s first series The Saga of the Seven Suns, The Dark Between the Stars gives us a glimpse of a galaxy just recovering from a sudden invasion by sentient beings of fire and water (named the Faeros and Hydrogues), as well as the mass exodus of the insectoid Kliskiss and their murderous intelligent robots.
Well-written and deftly executed, Anderson’s novel masterfully weaves together a huge cast of diverse characters into a cohesive whole. The characters were inspired by real emotion, and it was refreshing to see several common sci-fi tropes turned on their head. The cast included a refreshing amount of strong female leads: A hardened, no-nonsense businesswoman who is also an abusive mother; an artificial intelligence programmer trying to restore the good name of robots after the invasion; a woman attempting to build an arsenal of cures for every known disease; the woman who single-handedly stopped the invasion of the previous series.
Although initially slow and plodding, by the second half of the (admittedly long) novel, the action comes hard and fast. Although perhaps not noticeable to a novice reader’s eye, the novel sets up all the makings of a good sci-fi epic: undiscovered alien races and vistas, frustrating bureaucracy combined with stunning naivete, and a healthy amount of galaxy-ending threats looming in the background. In short, The Dark Between the Stars is a space opera on a grand, pulse-pounding scale.
It also represents a major failing of the science-fiction genre as a whole: exclusivity.
The Dark Between the Stars is the first novel in the follow-up series to Anderson’s earlier Saga of the Seven Suns. It takes place in the same universe, with the same characters. Because of this, reading the novel felt similar to starting the Harry Potter books at Goblet of Fire. The genre limitations of science-fiction only exacerbate the problem. Nearly all worldbuilding took place in the first series. While it is fascinating to learn about the existence of a world-forest full of sentient trees, or an alien race telepathically linked and divided into genetically distinct castes, information about the world is given in expository paragraphs, more synopsis and reminders than actual world-building. The novel tells rather than shows, robbing the reader of much of the joy of figuring out the mystery of the world.
The characters also suffer the same fate. Although all characters have a backstory, these characters have backstories that have been written; because their exploits during the Elemental War were shared with the reader in The Saga of the Seven Suns, we are given novels condensed to only a few sentences. Knowing that a character has a backstory is one thing; knowing that you could read about one character’s command of a starship during a battle that blew up the Moon, or the horrors another character faced in a forced breeding program, is another.
Had The Dark Between the Stars been an original series, not a sequel series, then it would be a truly great piece of science fiction, easily deserving of a place in the Hugo award nominations. However, the mechanical flaws in Anderson’s writing and those inherent in the genre weigh it down and prevent it from being a winner. It is hard to recommend the novel to a new reader. The vast majority of readers would be better off starting at Anderson’s first series and planning to read The Dark Between the Stars as its seventh installment.
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