Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Microreview: Endurance by Elaine Burnes

Imagine Star Trek Voyager, but done right

In a future solar system, subject to the same greedy competition that has always plagued newly explored territories, the equivalent of a luxury cruise is a sightseeing trip around the planets. One company involved in private space travel, Omara Tours, has arranged a special itinerary to take advantage of a rare alignment of Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Its cruise ship Endurance, captained by veteran explorer Lyn Randall, is approaching the moon Enceladus when a mysterious space anomaly instantly transports it and a handful of nearby ships 4 light-years away, to the Rigil Kentaurus system. There's no hint as to what caused the jump, there's no one nearby who can help, and it would take thousands of years to try to return to Earth. What comes next is trying to survive in the middle of nowhere.

Elaine Burnes's novel Endurance wears its Star Trek influences on its sleeve, most notably in the social interactions within the spaceship, but the setting of the story is all its own. Earth is still recovering from a catastrophic war plus environmental collapse that led to a new start from scratch in the form of a feminist revolution. Spaceships have artificial gravity, matter recycling, and talking computers, but there aren't teleporters or warp drives or alien civilizations. So the novel sort of feels like it lives in Star Trek, but only as far as the worldbuilding needs to draw from it. While openly inspired by Star Trek, it's far from derivative.

There isn't a conventional antagonist here. The core conflict isn't between the protagonist and an enemy, but between the protagonist and the harshness of the universe. To be sure, Captain Randall has numerous inner demons, but instead of defining her, they organically inform the way she makes hard decisions for the safety of the people under her responsibility. Much of the plot resembles those classic pulp stories where smart engineers had to solve a technical challenge to save the day. Unlike most pulp adventures, Endurance keeps a finger on the pulse of human desires and fears. The point of figuring out the mystery isn't just the intellectual satisfaction; the point is always the characters' reaction to being stranded and helpless in the void. Without losing sight of the nerdy intricacies of interstellar jumping, Endurance gives primacy to its character's inner lives and relationships.

Although enough loose ends are left for an implied sequel, Endurance satisfies on its own. From among the hundreds of already existing novels about travelers lost in space, this one achieves the right mix of physics and humanism to build a well-rounded story. The various everyday complications of space survival are enhanced by the context of personal histories, unresolved regrets, and lingering suspicions that prevent this seemingly simple premise from ever getting boring. As Burnes's first foray into science fiction, Endurance proves unmissable.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Burnes, Elaine. Endurance [Mindancer Press, 2022].