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In many ways, Starship is the kind of sequel one hopes for. While so many second novels in series merely rehash what has come before, this novel stands so completely on its own, and bears so little resemblance to its predecessor, Signals, that that book is rendered practically superfluous. Which is just as well, as Signals wasn't all that great.

Starship has its problems, too, not the least of which is an abrupt ending that leaves way too many unresolved plot threads dangling like frayed shoelaces. But even though it never amounts to much more than a lazy-Sunday space opera potboiler, it delivers a lot of entertainment on that level. If nothing else, it's neat to read an alien invasion novel in which we are the alien invaders.

Starship opens a little over 200 years after the events in Signals, in which an alien vessel visited our solar system and then, oddly, turned around and left with little to no fanfare. A massive generation ship, informally called The Home by its thousands of inhabitants, is on its way to colonize another world many light years away. In order to keep its society stable throughout the long centuries of flight, The Home has developed a nearly Orwellian system in which dissent and doubt are mellowed by drugs, everyone on board has a number for a surname (Jason 215, one of the protagonists, is so called for being born 215 years after the ship's launch), surveillance is pervasive, and people have become so interbred that almost everyone on board looks alike. While conditions on The Home might seem a bit extreme at first glance, I like the way Randle was willing to turn up his nose at the traditional wide-eyed optimism of most space opera, and introduce his generation ship (a neat concept that SF has underused, to its benefit, I think) as a seething hotbed of barely-contained social turmoil just waiting to boil over.

Boil over it does. When the indispensible agriculture pods start falling like dominoes to disease and blight, effectively condemning The Home in its entirety, the only explanation appears to be sabotage. While the ship's captain and the civilian mayor attempt to uncover the conspiracy, immediate searches are made of nearby space for a suitable world that can be colonized well ahead of schedule. The only likely candidate is a moon surrounding a massive gas giant, where the conditions are remarkably similar to Earth's. But if the moon contains any intelligent life, the laws of The Home strictly forbid any colonization. Of course, when those laws were drafted, no one was quite anticipating the desperate emergency that has actually arisen.

Naturally, there are several assumptions that you'll just have to let slide — the lucky fact of The Home's being just close enough to a system with an inhabitable moon, etc. — if you want the story to work a lot of the time. And while Randle holds your attention admirably throughout the book while the crisis escalates, he fails, as he did in the first volume, to bring his tale to a satisfying conclusion. It's very exciting watching The Home's rigid and calm society descend into anarchy, terrorism and panic. But an even more potentially compelling story thread, involving exactly what the colonists do discover upon landing on the moon, is wrapped up in a hurried fashion, without being allowed to come a cropper. Presumably this will get more play in book three.

There are signs that the series has room to grow. But in the end, it's destined to be a boilerplate midlist adventure saga in a genre that already offers readers the worlds of Niven, Pournelle, Anderson, Bujold, Cherryh, Weber, and on and on. But if you have a lazy afternoon to kill and are looking for a little new old-school spacefaring adventure to kill it with, you might find Randle's Starship a reasonably worthwhile flight.

Followed by F.T.L.