Starfarers by Vonda N McIntyre

Ace, 1989, 286 p.

Starfarers cover

J D Sauvage has been appointed alien contact specialist on the starship Starfarer, soon to make its maiden voyage into interstellar space by magnetically latching onto cosmic string. In the meantime she is finishing up her work with genetically modified humans known as divers, who are able to communicate with Orcas (capitalised here.) Both the starship and the divers are threatened by the policy of the latest US government which is anxious to make sure the divers are not used as spies by the Mideast Sweep (a fundamentalist religion dominated political entity which has swallowed up not only the Middle East but also the former USSR) and wishes Starfarer itself to become a low-orbit military facility.

On the starship, a pair of huge contra-rotating cylinders only one of which is inhabited by humans, J D meets the members of the family partnership containing Victoria, Stephen Thomas and Satoshi. The family partnership is said to be a now outdated social arrangement, a loosely structured menage, not quite polygamy, with several members. Victoria, Stephen Thomas and Satoshi’s “family” had had a fourth member Merry, but she died.

The conflict here is between the starship’s crew and the US government – not the only but the main funder for the expedition. A minor conflict ensues from the activities on the ship of Griffith, a US government spy, sent to discredit the expedition’s aims. The programme, Grandparents in space, seems to him a prime example of its uselessness. However Griffith gets distracted from his mission by the presence on board of space pioneer Kolya Cherenkov.

Operations on the ship are overseen by a web AI called Arachne which is in direct contact with all on board. This seems a mundane extrapolation nowadays but in 1989 when this was published it was fairly visionary, (the presence of a back-up system of hardware perhaps less so.)

This edition has one of those ‘window’ covers which were popular at the time, depicting a spaceship and the Moon as through another spaceship’s viewport. Unfortunately its tag-line “They broke all the rules …” is a huge spoiler as it continues on the inside flap, “to explore the final frontier,” thus vitiating the book’s main outcome.

It is thirty plus years on of course, but once again I found on reading McIntyre that my memories of her prose from The Exile Waiting and Dreamsnake (evolved from the short story Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand) are not lived up to. Starfarers is certainly readable enough but not anything out of the ordinary.

Pedant’s corner:- earth (multiple instances; Earth,) J. D. (we had examples of ‘J. D.,’ but at the end of a sentence it was always ‘J. D.’ not ‘J. D..’,) “hyphenated double last names. Like Conan Doyle.” (Conan Doyle isn’t hyphenated, neither in the name of that author nor in this book’s text,) the moon (several times, the Moon.) “And I cooked the isotopes, so the dating will be consistent.” (‘Cooking the isotopes’ wold be incredibly difficult and looks beyond any technology on display here,) “font of wisdom” (fount,) “the United States’” (is now a singular entity, United States’s,) impoundment (impounding, as in seize legally, was what was meant; an impoundment is a dam,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x2.)

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