It’s a classic set-up: humans are exploring space and receive a mysterious signal. Time for first contact! A.C. Crispin takes this familiar idea and runs with it in StarBridge, a smart and fast-paced novel from a few years ago, now released as an ebook for the first time.
The main character is a young teenager named Mahree, who is on her way back to Earth to go to school. The signal causes everybody on board their little ship to go off of their routine, and they have to make the best of a first-contact situation on their own.The book has unusual aliens, lots of nifty linguistic details, intergalactic strife, a desperate countdown to empty oxygen tanks, and all kinds of similar great scifi adventure stuff. Did I mention unusual and interesting aliens? The book doesn’t disappoint on that score, unlike some sf stories that come to mind (cough Prometheus cough).
Crispin is a writer known best for her tie-in work (see more details below), and it’s neat to see the strengths that she brings from that world into her own original series. It helps that StarBridge is a really fun novel, one that can easily hook people. The book could have come across as a carefully calibrated scheme for a shared world setting (there are a bunch of books that follow StarBridge in the series, each co-written by Crispin and another writer). And Crispin mentions in the afterword that she deliberately set out to use a female protagonist for the sake of balancing out umpteen million male protagonists in this sort of story. But nothing here comes across as a mechanical exercise – the story is told with a fair amount of passion.
Crispin also holds back a pretty masterful surprise for the ending. I don’t want to give away too much, but the wish-fulfillment aspects of the apparent ending are actually building towards something else. Namely, an emotional undertow that’s foreshadowed fair and square in some references earlier in the book. Bravo! I don’t come across many satisfying endings, but this conclusion definitely delivered the goods.
Crispin’s had an interesting career. As mentioned, she’s known for writing tie-in novels, including some well-regarded Star Trek titles. Most recently, she wrote a prequel novel for the Pirates of the Caribbean universe. For a nice overview of Crispin’s career (and her efforts with Writer Beware), see this post courtesy of Jim Hines. Crispin recently posted some news about her health and about medical bills, which is a weird concept to a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian like myself… but in the absence of sensible healthcare provision, ebooks to the rescue! (Crispin mentions that the ebook re-releases of the StarBridge series will be her only income this year). I’m sounding facetious, and I wish American writers and artsy folks of the self-employed type wouldn’t have to worry about this. But being able to get old material nicely repackaged and out there for fans to purchase directly is a fantastic thing to see happen. I know I’ve been banging this drum for a while on the Gutter, but I’m finding it fascinating to see how, in battle between careless corporate giants like Amazon and Apple, there are cracks of light, i.e. heartening projects of the indie and home-brew and small-press kind.
I’ll mention two other items briefly, both concerned with opening the lines of communication and bridging cultures, but from very different angles than StarBridge. Ancient, Ancient, a collection of short stories by Kiini Ibura Salaam, was just published by Aqueduct Press. I’m a fan of Aqueduct (“Aqueduct Press dedicates itself to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction”), even though their material isn’t always up my alley. That’s not a criticism, since it seems that I’ve drifted away from more serious science fiction and sf-related essays, and my taste now runs more to books like StarBridge that are implementing some of the same aims as Aqueduct but in a looser, pulpier story. The stories in Ancient, Ancient are highly polished, highly compressed, sometimes verging on poetry rather than prose, and remind me a great deal of Tiptree’s work. And also of Nalo Hopkinson. Salaam has a number of connections with Hopkinson – for one thing, Hopkinson has a blurb on Ancient, Ancient. Hopkinson also published a story by Salaam in her anthology Mojo: Conjure Stories a few years ago (a story that gets reprinted here). The two authors were also in the two Dark Matter anthologies.
So when I was reading Ancient, Ancient, I began to think about Nalo Hopkinson, who seemed to drop off the radar for a few years. Hopkinson’s second novel Midnight Robber is still one of my favourite science fiction novels, a really stellar example of nanotech meets post-colonial fiction. As it turns out, Hopkinson has a new book just out, a sort of YA urban fantasy called The Chaos – it’s about a young teen living in Toronto when the chaotic events of the title unfold, and it’s quite good. In the author’s foreword, Hopkinson reveals that she had been fighting some fairly severe personal/health difficulties, and that she felt grateful to have her life back in order, i.e. writing and publishing.