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STAROAMER'S FATE
1986

Book cover art by Enric.
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

Staroamer's Fate is such an ill-conceived novel I'm almost tempted to recommend it, if only as a helpful guide to would-be SF writers as a shining example of how not to do it. It's easy to see why Chuck Rothman did not exactly go on to a brilliant career following this debut, as he is utterly clueless as to even the most fundamental rules of plot logic and plausibility. It's as if he comes from a school of plot development called the "I'm making it up as I go" Theory, with all of the unintentional hilarity and eye-rolling embarrassment one would expect from such an approach. I can expect implausibilities like the ones that pepper this novel to come from a new and untried writer who has yet to master his craft. But for such lameness to get past an editor at a publishing company is another thing entirely, and much less forgivable.

Rothman kicks off this dual game of "Spot the Cliché" and "Spot the Plot Flaw" right from his opening pages. Quarnian Dow is a "gold star syron," which means that she possesses some sort of ill-defined precognitive power of intuition that enables her to make the right decisions about circumstances. From the get-go you don't believe in it, not merely because Rothman fails to explain it intelligibly, but because, although gold star syrons are allegedly held in awe and Dow herself is supposed to be some kind of celebrity, we meet her as she's completely broke and hanging out in a series of Typical SF-Novel Grungy Bars looking for lowlifes willing to go on a space voyage with her. It's like asking us to believe Julia Roberts is out begging for work in dinner theater.

Dow has saved a space pilot named Rex from having his ship repossessed by the bank, simply by walking up and flashing her gold star syron pendant to the astonished banker, who leaves confident of Dow's ability to make lots of money, which, we are told, gold star syrons are good at. But then right away, Rothman has Dow so indigent that she is forced to pawn this pendant, and, not only that, we're told she doesn't get much for it...even though an actual banker was shown practically kowtowing to it just a few pages before! Uh...hello, Chuck? If she needed money so badly, why didn't she just ask the banker for some while he was groveling before her? Even with the explanation provided later, that Dow has lost all of her money assisting in a revolution on another planet, Rothman's description of Dow's reputation makes her desperate straits hard to swallow.

So, why does Dow want to go on a space voyage? Well, she isn't sure; just another one of her gold star syron hunches that adventure is just around the corner. Then one of her crew reminds her of the legend of the Staroamer, Earth's most massive and ambitious generation ship with a crew in the thousands, that disappeared without trace 500 years ago and has since become the subject of myth and speculation, a far-future Flying Dutchman. That's it, decides Dow, they'll go and find the lost and legendary Staroamer.

It takes them all of a week.

Yeah, well, you know, how could they miss it? I mean, it's just out there flying around in interstellar space for anyone to see! Sorry, but even Rothman's all-purpose syron hunches can't satisfactorily explain the foolishness at this point. Come on — Dow can't accurately predict the outcome of a horse race but can find the precise point in space of a craft that has been officially missing for half a millennium? Yeah, and I have a great beach house in Nebraska with a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower!

Once Dow and Co. are aboard Staroamer, the plot is less egregiously stupid but still contrived and difficult to believe, although, to Rothman's credit, he does manage to evoke a somewhat spooky atmosphere as our heroes explore the dim and deserted corridors of the lost vessel. But of course, they aren't dim and deserted for long. They soon meet up with a young woman named Sindona, a distant descendant of the original crew, who relates a tale of tragedy followed by a bizarre odyssey as the survivors find themselves adapting and evolving to their new situation. But the rest of the crew, who stay mostly hidden in the shadows, clearly have sinister intentions for Dow.

Throughout this book, there are glimpses of the nifty, eerie story it could have been if only Rothman hadn't set things up in such a silly and illogical way. For example, all of this might have worked better if he had just dispensed with the whole gold star syron concept in the first place (primarily because he employs it inconsistently and unconvincingly; after all, why is Dow able to find the ship's location but unable to predict absolutely anything that happens to them once they're inside?), and simply told a story of a crew of space travellers who stumble upon this mythical lost ship quite by surprise. A set-up like that would have allowed the spookiness factor to be ramped up considerably and put the reader in a more receptive frame of mind for the paranormal. If you're going to bring such iffy paranormal concepts as telepathy and precognition (even precognition of the kinda-sorta variety) into a science fiction story, you'd better either have thought it through to a logical end or at least employ it in such a way that it isn't simply, and glaringly, serving the function of author's convenience.

Some of Rothman's other SF elements fail the believability test. The Staroamer's surviving crew are said to have spent their whole lives in zero-G, and some are said to be able to live in vacuum for a limited time. That's not beyond the realm of believability, but Rothman's description of the crew's accelerated evolution is a stretch. Also, the crew seem to be pretty close to human in Rothman's description of them, but a person who's spent a lifetime in no gravity would most likely be very small in physical stature and skeletally frail.

In the end, Staroamer's Fate is a textbook example of how a first-time novelist can make the mistake of having tons of cool ideas for a novel, few of which may be compatible with one another, and yet decide to throw them all into the same storyline anyway. With stronger editorial guidance, and about two to three rewrites, Staroamer's Fate might have been a pretty strong book and Rothman today might still be publishing and winning a Hugo every once in a while. But Rothman clearly didn't get that direction, and so the failure of this tale really can't be laid entirely at his feet. After all, by giving him his first chance before he was ready, his publisher failed him.