Book Review – Starbound by Joe Haldeman
Starbound is the second book in Haldeman’s Marsbound series. As with Marsbound, the tech in this book is believable and the aliens are truly strange. They are powerful, seemingly amoral (at least from a human perspective), possibly sadistic, and almost certainly paranoid.
In this book, seven humans and two ‘Martians’ are sent to bring them a message of peace (please don’t kill us), and it is the mystery of what the delegation from our solar system will find out about the aliens — what they are, what they want, and what they will do — that kept me reading.
But that was about it. The characters are not especially likeable. The humans struck me as immature, unimaginative, sex obsessed, and not especially bright — in short, distressingly average. If humanity ever does send ambassadors to speak with aliens, I hope they can do better that these guys. They are far from the best and the brightest.
As with Marsbound, this novel is told in first person, but in this case, not the same first person. It switches the point of view character between chapters. Many are written as personal journal entries. This is done well enough so it is not terribly confusing. After a few sentences, you can tell which “I” character is speaking, but it is still a bit annoying.
The multiple points of view did not bother me. In fact, I tend to prefer novels written from multiple POV because they can provide a deeper understanding of motivations, perspectives, and story plot, but I personally find that this works best as third person, limited omniscient. First person multiple POV is clumsy to read because the person meant by “I” keeps changing. Still, this might have worked here if the characters had more personality.
Without giving away any details about the ending, I can mention one other thing I found dissatisfying about this novel. The aliens are so powerful that nothing the humans do has any hope of affecting them. The humans are pretty much reduced to ants pleading with a gardener not to spray any more insecticide. It’s not a fun read.
I want to make it clear that I am not saying that this is a ‘bad’ book. I’m sure some people will love it. If you have a fondness for stories about average people confronting almost omnipotent monsters and impending apocalypse, this may appeal to you. It’s better than most like that because the science and tech make sense. Personally, I prefer stories with above average people solving problems and eventually making things better. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a happy ending, but this is simply a matter of taste.