Monday, April 8, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Daughter Star by Susan Jane Bigelow


The Meat 

Many writers, when you get right down to it, have only one truly good idea.  Such writers may, over the course of their careers, write dozens of novels, poems, and so forth but will forever be remembered for that single masterwork, against which all their other work appears pitiful by comparison.  Joseph Heller (i.e., the guy who wrote Catch-22...and a bunch of other stuff that nobody cares about) is my go-to example of this breed of writer, but it's a frequent phenomenon in the world of science fiction and fantasy literature too, especially in the second variation: all their works are extremely similar. One thinks, in particular, of the always excellent but always predictable Joe Abercrombie, or of K.J. Parker's repetitive though well-crafted variations on the "City gets sacked and the people who sack it found the new City, on ad infinitum" theme.

Genuine improvement in both writing style and increasing sophistication of ideas isn't all that common in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy literature (or arguably in literature in general). Indeed, a given author's first book (Lies of Locke Lamora, anyone?) is often far and away the most intriguing. There's a simple reason for this: people have a finite number of ideas, and when toying with the possibility of becoming a writer, naturally most will put their best foot forward, so to speak.  That's why sequels tend to suck—the first-time author has just used up a tremendous amount of energy, anaerobic respiration-style, to produce book one, but all subsequent work requires the long, painful, slow burn of aerobic respiration.
With such a long preamble, you, dear reader(s), will probably be expecting me either to denounce Susan Jane Bigelow for rehashing her earlier works in rebooted form, or possibly to extol the virtues of The Daughter Star as her career-making masterpiece.  The truth about Bigelow and The Daughter Star, however, is nothing so extreme, a fact that is very encouraging.  You see, Bigelow has markedly improved as a writer since her first novel, Broken, whose worldview and writing style both reminded me of nothing so much as Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay (and no, that's not exactly a glowing compliment).  This is cause for celebration—she has managed the difficult feat of surpassing her earlier works on both style and substance, combining a more engaging plot (the ideas are cooler) with more sophisticated handling of dialogue and characterization (the writing is better).
In particular, the picture she word-paints of a universe in which humankind has an extremely ambivalent relationship with an alien race, which is at once benefactor and exploiter of humankind, is intriguing, as is the issue of planetary rather than national/religious/human solidarity.  If humankind had to leave Earth and be split into two groups and be bundled off to two very different worlds, one (in a word) awesome and one super-crappy, one can easily imagine how resentment at getting the short stick might simmer for a few decades, then eventually boil over into some interstellar unpleasantness.  This sort of thing is why I read science fiction: it takes the world we know and introduces a giant "what if ____?" to the equation, then explores the various ramifications such an altered world would present its inhabitants.
One problem with The Daughter Star is actually that, to my mind, there were rather too many "what if?" questions, especially near the end, with a big reveal that all might not be as post-Earth history claims.  Having several drastic differences from the current world in which we live made the book less engaging to me, since it was harder to see how this or that aspect of the created world was commenting on the "real" world (something all literature tries to do, or so I rather naively believe).
This brings us to the other problem: the one glaring exception to the "I can't see what this part of the story has to do with the real world" principle.  The main character of The Daughter Star, an interstellar trade fleet pilot, is a lesbian, sent home after her fleet disbands as tensions simmering between the two settled worlds break out into open war, and the entire first quarter of the book explores how small-minded and judgmental everyone from her crappy nation is, in the process providing a rather laborious account of the awfulness of her family, and especially her father (pressure from everyone to settle down, stop flying around in space and find a dependable man, almost house arrest, withholding of vital mail, etc.), and this is without even having come out to them!  That fully 25% of the novel is devoted, in Campbellian terms, to the pre-"call to adventure" stage of the hero's journey seems excessive to me. I mean, sure, it's good to hear the reasons for a given hero(ine)'s desire to leave on an adventure, but ultimately, readers want to read about the adventure, not a pseudo-sermon about how nice it would be if the protagonist were somewhere else. We get it: overly fundamentalist parents/societies who insist that women stay at home are icky. There—I just summed up dozens of pages in thirteen words!
You, dear reader(s), might be itching to object here that, if earlier I took Bigelow to task for overloading her book with premises that have little relation to the real world, this sort of clearly resonant issue should be right up my alley, and normally I would agree with you.  But here, it's just too didactic. Actually, the entire novel, which has plenty of interesting and even morally ambiguous, almost femme-fatale female characters, has not a single even remotely sympathetic male character (except for one old guy near the end).
It seems that in this future universe, men are kind of horrible, but because this part of the novel is so clearly, almost allegorically commenting on the world of today, it's hard not to conclude that men are bad news.  Of course, that's probably true to a point, but these sorts of sweeping generalizations tend to pop up only in, say, wartime propaganda—and even then usually we get one or two "good guys" objecting to their own group's horrible conduct.  The reason propagandists create this moral complexity among the enemy, and thereby avoid depicting them as an interchangeable ravening mob, is because it's truer to real life experience to present a gray rather than a stark black and white world, and more convincing as propaganda.
My objection, then, isn't to the generalization itself, but to the unambiguous way men in this novel are characterized: they're pretty much an undifferentiated mass of thuggish, bossy jerks. I am of the opinion The Daughter Star could have been improved by a more sophisticated treatment of this universe's men, not because it somehow isn't politically correct to have a book where men behave like overbearing monsters that crawled out of Slytherin House, but because it felt, on the level of dialogue and characterization, to be a rather crude caricature of actual (hu)man behavior, and far less successful than her treatment of women (and even female aliens!).
Still, the ending certainly left the door hanging wide open for a sequel, so perhaps in Bigelow's subsequent journeys to the universe she has created, she'll pull a J.K. Rowling and (Harry Potter spoiler alert! For the three people on earth who don't know the story yet) show how seemingly awful male characters, the Draco Malfoys and Snapes of her world, might have some redeeming qualities after all (though something tells me the father won't be getting a Snape-style reappraisal). 
All in all, however, there is enough that works well in The Daughter Star to justify both a) reading it, and b) being intrigued enough to look forward to the eventual sequel.

The Math

Objective score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for winning the Most Improved award: major improvements in both style and story sophistication from earlier work

Penalties: -1 for having all male characters suck so hard, -1 for the extended, almost didactic treatment of the "family drama" in the first 25%

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10  "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

[This score might seem cruelly low, but actually, it isn't at all; you can see an explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]