Monday, October 10, 2011

Nexus: Ascension, by Robert Boyczuk

Nexus: Ascension, by Robert Boyczuk.  ChiZine Publications, 2010.  978-0-981374-8-0.

... in which a crew returns from 30 years of space travel to find that their home world has been completely ravaged by a mysterious plague.

This review is of a digital copy provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

Nexus: Ascension begins with a crew on the long-haul spaceship Ea waking up from cryonic suspension as they approach their home planet Bh'Haret after thirty years away.  They find that the planet is surrounded by warning satellites, which broadcast the warning "hazard plague hazard plague hazard plague..." over and over again; scans of the planet make it clear that there is no human life.  Because their supplies are dwindling and the nearest planet is too far away, the crew of Ea has no choice but to land on Bh'Haret and risk exposure to the plague.  Upon landing on the planet, they gradually discover that the origins of the plague are mysterious at best.  The crew of Ea have to work together with the crew from another recently-arrived long-haul ship to solve the mystery of the plague and to discover its possible connections to Nexus, a powerful interplanetary government that was previously at odds with the planet Bh'Haret.

This is a book that's packed with plot and interesting science-fiction ideas, but is lacking in characterization.  Most of the characters are given no backstory, and many have no clear personalities beyond a few flat character attributes.  Liis, one of main characters, goes from a capable, loner woman to a doe-eyed, lovestruck puppy following the object of her affections everywhere, in the span of only a few pages.  Sav, the closest thing to a protagonist in the story, has no clear personality beyond generally having good intentions but resenting most of the other people on his crew.  Hebuiza, the crew's Facilitator (kind of like the Mentats from Dune), seems to have no redeeming characteristics and only exists to mock the other characters and make his own shady plans.  Josua, the final member of the crew of Ea, is so wildly inconsistent in his interactions with the others that it becomes difficult to sympathize with his problem.  The other characters from the second long-haul ship that arrives are also flat.  The two men on the second ship seem to only exist to increase the size of the cast of characters.  The woman has almost no lines in the entire story... her purpose is mostly to look nervous, I think.  And the second ship's Facilitator apparently has no traits other than being just plain crazy.

On a more positive note, even though the characters are flat and uninteresting, the plot itself is pretty engrossing.  The first half of the book is set on Bh'Haret as the characters investigate the source of the plague and a possible cure.  Although the story moves pretty slowly here, the author does a good job of building tension and keeping the reader engaged enough to want to keep reading.  The slow build-up of the first half is preparing the reader for the much faster-paced second half of the book, which follows the characters' actions after they leave Bh'Haret.  In the second half of the book, the characters do finally begin to show signs of having personalities, though characterization is still eclipsed by the plot.  I was pleasantly surprised by some of the twists that the story took; the twists were unexpected enough to be interesting, but not so strange that they were implausible and unlikely.  I think the author definitely gave himself enough room to write additional books in the Nexus universe, and the end of the book was interesting enough to make me want to know what happened to a couple of characters (after they finally started developing into real people). 

In terms of details, this book had a lot of things I like to see in science fiction, though nothing truly ground-breaking.  I could definitely see the influences of other science-fiction works in the book, but in a good way.  There were certainly some details that were reminiscent of the Dune books, and cryo-suspension is a pretty common thing in works involving inter-stellar space travel.  I also liked that the author allowed appropriate amounts of time to pass with the light-speed travel (unlike some sci-fi works that seem to think that light-speed travel gets you anywhere in the universe in five seconds flat).  The idea of the multi-planet alliance that made up Nexus was also interesting, and I'd like to see the idea explored a little more.  My biggest detail-oriented complaint is that it seems unlikely that so many planets have humans, or are human-enough to feel threatened by a plague that kills humans.  I suppose it's possible that all inhabited planets were started by space-traveling humans; Boyczuk does say a few times that Nexus "seeded" some planets, but doesn't really explain what that could mean beyond the government's distribution of technology.

I am wavering between a 3- and a 4-star rating for this book.  On the one hand, the lack of characterization was a really big problem for me.  In science-fiction, I like to feel connected to the characters enough that I don't get lost in the pile of themes and concepts that tend to exist in sci-fi books.  On the other hand, the plot was good enough to make me want to read a little more (provided the characterization continues to improve).  Since I would be willing to read another novel by this author, I'll settle for a rating of 4/5 stars.

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