Jumpdrives & Cantrips


The Outback Stars
April 26, 2008, 2344
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

The Outback StarsThe Outback Stars has some of the most beautiful cover art I have seen for a long time on a science fiction book. However, while good artwork sells books, good story sells them better, and that’s something Sandra McDonald understands. In fact, she wrote a solid enough debut novel that it warranted a nomination for the Compton Crook award. She also understands what she’s doing with her book: the tag-line she uses is “Love. Duty. Really big spaceships.” Which is probably a decent summation of some of the big ticket items in the book, if a very brief one.

Made up of military science fiction and space opera genre-wise, The Outback Stars is the story of Lieutenant Jodenny Scott and Sergeant Terry Myell. There’s a lot going on in this book, but if you expect space battles you won’t find them here. Jodenny has won a medal of honour for her conduct on her last ship, which ended in a fiery blaze. She escapes from her recovery period by forcing her posting on the Aral Sea as a supply officer. She gets the dubious honour of “reforming” Underway Stores, where what she doesn’t know can hurt her. With possible smugglers on board, she must deal with surviving her last ship and navigate alien transportation systems not designed for human use.

While the novel begins slowly, the pace builds with numerous subplots juggled together, scaffolding effectively into higher tension. McDonald excels in looking at the valour found in the everyday military actions during peacetime, and the ship politics that result from it. The ordinary becomes oddly fascinating, mostly because the writing makes it that way. Word choice is deft, and character portrayal is both consistent and complex. Jodenny is no cardboard cutout, and she certainly isn’t perfect.

For Jodenny and Terry, space is not the final frontier. Maybe it’s love in this particular book, or possibly the mysterious and alien Wondjina technology. Either way you slice it, the mixture of larger themes balanced with details of prose and story work well together. Terry’s intermittent gecko, Koo, was probably one of my favourite characters in the book. The details of supporting characters made for a nuanced balance, especially when Jodenny deals with some of the malcontents in her division in, er, creative ways. The interactions between characters are where McDonald shines; sometimes the unspoken is more important than what was actually said:

“What are you thinking?” he asked.
She was thinking there was no such thing as easy sex, no matter what people said. Not on a spaceship and not when the person was someone you worked with.
“I’m thinking this is just what the doctor ordered,” she lied.
Rokutan eased her back and began unbuttoning her blouse. “Is that all I am to you? A prescription?”
Jodenny touched his jaw. “A panacea.”
“A substitute for the real thing?”
“That’s a placebo,” she said (p. 250).

The mixture of alien and Aboriginal culture in The Outback Stars is fascinating, and a welcome change from the norm. Tying these two themes together bridges into the colonial nature of space, and I’m interested to see where this part of the story goes in future volumes. While this volume focuses mainly on interpersonal politics, my hope is McDonald’s next installment, The Stars Down Under, will take a broader political view and add depth to Jodenny’s world. More back story would satisfy my curiosity of how Australia became a major player in space, but it was also nice not to have the requisite info-dump when it really wasn’t required to understand the story.

One of the few weaknesses I noted was a lack of description of surroundings: it was difficult to know whether I was imagining what the author had in mind visually. Much of the Underway Stores department used specific equipment (the DNGO retrieval units were a particular highlight though I was waiting for a baby-eating joke that never came), but I wasn’t really sure what they looked like mentally. Sometimes I found myself getting distracted from the story because it was frustrating trying to situate things, and I was a little uncertain of the ship’s actual structure.

However, these are minor complaints, and overall The Outback Stars worked for me as a reader on a very basic level. These are characters who are everyday people dealing with their lives and their careers in ways that make sense to them, and the grounded nature of the story pulls the speculative into a reality that is all too rare in science fiction. I’m definitely looking forward to more from Sandra McDonald, and getting my hands on The Stars Down Under.

McDonald, Sandra. The Outback Stars. New York: Tor Books, 2007. 376 pages. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: Fantasy Debut’s coverage, plus Tia’s interview with Sandra McDonald, and Sci-Fi Weekly’s review.

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