Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Star Dragon by Mike Brotherton

Star Dragon is the debut novel of Mike Brotherton, who works as a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming. You can visit his website here.

Centuries from now, in a world where biotechnology is ubiquitous in the human race has begun to spread outwards to other stars, a corporation called Biolathe receives a centuries-old radio transmission from an interstellar probe transmitting from SS Cygni. SS Cygni a variable binary star system comprised of a main-sequence star and a white dwarf, notable for the dramatic novae it periodically undergoes as hydrogen from the larger star is drawn off by the gravity of its smaller but much denser companion, accumulating and eventually undergoing nuclear fusion on the surface of the dwarf. The probe's engine signal, however, contain something even more interesting- in the accretion disc of stellar plasma spiraling towards the dwarf there is something alive, somehow able to survive at temperatures and pressures that are nearly enough to ignite nuclear fusion.

Eager to learn more about this unprecedented- and potentially very lucrative, if they can figure out it works- form of life, which Biolathe has dubbed a “star dragon,” the company decides to send a manned expedition to SS Cygni to study on one of their ships, the Karamojo. Their mission will be to study, and if possible capture, this newly discovered form of life. The relativistic speeds human spacecraft can achieve have made regular interstellar flights to nearby solar systems feasible- but SS Cygni is so distant that, while the voyage there and back will take only a few subjective years for the crew of five, 500 years will have passed back on Earth by the time they return.

Interstellar flight is a technology humans have mastered and the risks involved in actually traveling to SS Cygni are modest, but the trip is still potentially perilous. SS Cygni's variable cycle lasts seven to eight weeks, but it still isn't possible to determine in advance just when its next outburst will come, and when it does the binary's luminosity jumps to many times its normal level in less than a day and becomes more than enough to fry a ship nearby. Aside form its existence and habitat, virtually nothing about the dragon is known- its behavior, its origins, its abilities, how many fellow members of its species it might be accompanied by, or just how it will react to an attempt to capture it. All five members of the crew have their own reasons for essentially saying goodbye to virtually everything they've ever known to go a journey that will end with them half a millennium out of their own time. For shipboard xenobiologist Samuel Fisher it's his fascination, and then growing obsession, with the dragon itself- an obsession that threatens to bring into conflict with other members of the crew in the midst of what is already a potentially very dangerous situation filled with unknowns.

I liked Star Dragon. Brotherton makes good use of his background in astrophysics to make SS Cygni a compelling environment, and the story of the character's journey there and exploration of it is well-done and does a good job of combining human drama with the dangers and wonders of SS Cygni and the mysterious dragon.

I enjoyed the characterization, which was both nicely done and more integral to the story than is often the case in hard science fiction stories focused on an unusual environment (e.g. Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, etc.) The crew is interesting, and Brotherton does a good job of something I particularly like to see done well- portraying a character being a jerk without being a villain, and without either making him seem one-dimensionally, pointlessly, or irredeemably bad, or going too far in the opposite direction and making him so reasonable or sympathetic that his faults seem trivial. I also liked the Karamojo's AI, Papa, who is an interesting character in his own right as a being with a personality that is in many ways human-like, but is often bound by the inescapable imperatives programmed into him by his creator- he has enough freedom to wish he could give a crew member he doesn't like a piece of his mind, or resent it when a crew member's emotional distress sets off a program that compels him to start asking questions designed to probe their psyche when he wishes he could just express sympathy, but not enough to actually do what he wants. The parts of the book with him as the viewpoint character were especially effective.

The setting is nicely realized, but inside and outside the Karamojo. Brotherton's portrayal of SS Cygni was quite effective at evoking an alien, dangerous, almost apocalyptic environment, and the book's examination of how the binary, its accretion disk, it's a recurring nova cycle is interesting and incorporated into the story well. The Karamojo itself is rather unusual, the product of a society where biological technology is ubiquitous and so advanced that people can radically change their entire bodies almost casually and entire live organisms can manufactured as readily as mechanical parts. While we are shown very little of human society at large what we get from the ship and crew does a very good job of giving a sense of a future that seems quite alien in many ways.

My only complaint is that I wish there had been more on the star dragon itself, and how it functioned in an environment as hostile as an accretion disc around a nova-prone white dwarf. What we learn is interesting, but I feel there was something of a missed opportunity here.

That's a fairly minor complaint, however, and all in all Star Dragon is a fine book that I'd recommend to any hard science fiction fan, especially if you want a story with more emphasis than usual on the characters or like science fiction about possible forms of life in exotic and extreme environments in the vein of authors like Hal Clement or Stephen Baxter. It's a very solid debut for Mike Brotherton.

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