Robinson charts intriguing voyage in ‘The Dark Beyond the Stars’

August 18, 2012

While browsing the science fiction section of a used bookstore some days back, I noticed a hardcover copy of The Dark Beyond the Stars. I had read this 1991 Frank M. Robinson novel many years ago, and I believe I still have the trade paperback version of it (somewhere!).

Unable to resist revisiting an old friend, I bought the book. It was a good call.

This first-person story is told by Sparrow, a 17-year-old technician and space explorer. At the beginning of the book, a traumatic fall on the surface of an inhospitable planet erases virtually all of his memory.

And so the reader discovers the intriguing patterns and puzzles of life aboard the generation ship Astron at the same time Sparrow does. The pinnacle of human achievement, at least up until the point it was launched, the ship has been voyaging for 2,000 years in search of life. Thus far, none has been discovered.

The ship’s captain, Michael Kusaka, has been at the helm since the mission began; unlike his crew, who have normal life spans, he benefited from treatments that have prolonged his existence indefinitely. And unlike many of his subordinates, who believe the quest for extraterrestrial life to be a fool’s errand, Kusaka is determined to press ahead.

Matters come to a head when the captain plots a course across the Dark, a vast void beyond which lie star systems that could harbor life. But Astron is deteriorating, and the crew fears that without opportunities to replenish supplies, the ship will fail before it reaches the far side.

Sparrow, while sympathetic to Kusaka’s critics, is reluctant to join them. But he has a special role to play aboard Astron, one that slowly becomes apparent as he learns about the differences between him and his shipmates and the reasons behind those discrepancies.

Astron has developed an unusual society, which includes a form of polyamory as well as holographic projections that mask the ship’s rather grim reality. The crew has also developed certain attitudes that might make a prospective mutiny against the powerful Captain Kusaka all the more difficult to execute.

This is a story-driven book; Robinson does enough to make readers care about Sparrow and his shipmates, but his characters are not portrayed in great depth. Still, the novel is full of interesting concepts and dramatic developments, which is more than enough to compensate for the rather flat characterization.

I’m very glad I reread The Dark Beyond the Stars, and I urge other science fiction fans to get this novel.

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