In Starbound, Joe Haldeman tells the breathtaking tale of a select few who journey to save humanity from the Others – an enigmatic and possibly immortal race of beings. Humanity’s newly acquired space travel is seen as a possible threat by them – a threat they are unwilling to accept. Given the Others‘ superior technology, aggression equals suicide. Instead, seven humans and two Martians are chosen to travel over six light years to plea for the survival of the human race.
Their years’ long journey forces them to confront their own personal demons while confined to living side by side on a possibly suicidal mission. The capsule’s unique petri-dish of lifekind – the seven human and two Martian travelers – beautifully illustrates the similarities and differences between their societies. Martians, human colonists of Mars, and native born Earthers must unite for the common good.
The story itself engages the reader almost immediately with interesting characters and vibrant new worlds to explore. The danger is immediate; the situation – seemingly hopeless. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect (and possibly disturbing to certain readers) is not the imminent threat itself but rather the culture of the future. Triune and open marriages seem common; monogamous unions between men and women are regarded as a holdovers from ancient times – when women were considered property. In fact, I was reminded several times of Robert Heinlein’s treatment of sexuality in the future. However, while Heinlein’s stories often come across misogynistic, Starbound portrays actual equality between men and women.
Halfway through the book, the plot takes an unexpected turn when an unstable element is revealed within the travelers’ fragile environment. However, though the twist is fantastic, this is where readers might have real trouble suspending their disbelief.
Tension increases steadily for the intrepid explorers throughout the rest of the novel, resulting in the final outcome for planet Earth. A regretfully unbelievable outcome. Given that the rest of the book is so engaging, the ending comes as somewhat of a disappointment.
Haldeman’s novel is both compelling and disappointing. Perhaps the story seems incomplete because it’s part of a series, though the author integrates the facts smoothly into the plot. No, ultimately the ending is a let-down. For anyone interested in a unique vision of the culture and society of the future, I heartily recommend this novel. It allows us to glimpse this possible future and thereby comments on our own world today – in the tradition of truly great science fiction. However, my recommendation comes with a caveat: Reader beware – the story ends with a bang AND a whimper.