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The Desert of Stars (The Human Reach) Paperback – March 22, 2013
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About the Author
John J. Lumpkin was born in 1973 in San Antonio, Texas, and educated at Texas Christian University, and, lately, the University of Colorado at Boulder. A former military affairs and national security reporter for the Albuquerque Journal and the Associated Press, his experience includes covering 9-11, walking the halls of CIA headquarters, and racing through Baghdad and Kabul in military convoys. He may also be the only person who has had a drink with both Donald Rumsfeld and Steve-O from Jackass (but, to be clear, not at the same time). Now a writer and teacher, he lives outside of Boulder, Colorado.
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This book is set in the year 2141. Humanity, after having seen an asteroid smash into the Indian Ocean, has decided to establish colonies in space. Thanks to a Japanese scientist, they have developed a means of faster-than-light travel, and used it to establish a bewildering array of colonies on nearby star systems. Some colonies are independent; most are controlled by an Earth nation or group of nations.
As we find out very early in The Desert of Stars, a number stars that should have had habitable planets don't, thus creating the titular desert. Since FTL travel requires going from star to star, this is a real problem, and will put the brakes on the expansion of some colonial empires but not others. A war breaks out.
Lumpkin's war is not, however, the mad-dash affairs of Star Trek or Star Wars. His spaceships obey the laws of physics, taking weeks to cross a solar system. There are no force fields, no visible lasers, and in general scientific accuracy is maintained. This still results in a very entertaining book, largely because Lumpkin's characters are believable and he seems to understand both militaries and history. Much of the story is driven by the friendships developed by these characters during this war.
In Lumpkin's previous book, I dinged him for not including a number of nations, such as India, in the order of battle. Here, Lumpkin resolves that complaint, making India and Russia, two notable nations left out, key parts of the plot. Lumpkin also shows a keen awareness of the old saying that "nations have no permanent friends, just permanent interests."
In short, as literature, I found The Desert of Stars to be everything a reader of science fiction would want.
The short description of the series was space opera told with as much attention to realism and plausibility as possible. The first novel, Through Struggle, the Stars, was a great first novel. Lumpkin set himself several goals:
1) Plausible mid-future space opera sticking to plausible technology
2) Plausible geo-political developments from the current era that could devolve into, as von Clausewitz would say, politics by other means.
3) Plausible characters whose eyes we will witness the grand events through.
Lumpkin delivers on all that. This book is a direct continuation of the previous novel's storyline. He maintains the quality of the first novel without any slip-ups. I only had one complaint from the previous novel, that the need to have our POV character near the biggest events verged on harming the plausible realism of the rest of the story, verging into action movie territory. I say verge rather than plunge because I've read biographical accounts of real military officers attested to and confirmed by historians that I wouldn't believe if presented in fiction. No such quibbles in this book.
The conflict presented here is complex. There aren't any square-jawed heroes, mustache-twirling villains, cartoonish parodies of special interest groups the author has a grudge against, polemics or pontificating. The conflict here feels like real history: muddy, complex, and defying comprehension even by the historians who study it. Even if you don't agree with the assumptions the author made in his world-building, you can't say he didn't think it through. Sadly, that cannot be said for a great many space operas.
Many of the characters from the first book return, along with the complex geo(stellar?)politics and murky ethical choices. Again, the author's attention to detail is shocking; I can hardly imagine the hours spent researching The Human Reach. Everything from the number of megawatts required for a laser shot through atmosphere, to the amount of hydrogen a ship burns during combat, to the geology of alien planets and its effect on imported Earth species is covered here. This may sound tedious, but the science is never labored and enhances the depth and tension of the story.
The tone of The Desert of Stars surprised me, taking the series in a slightly darker direction. Characters die (this is war, after all) and make choices that affect the lives of thousands, often in negative ways. War exhaustion, something many books capture imperfectly if at all, plays an important part in this story, with some character's resolve slipping after years of combat. The characters feel real, not the steely eyed superheroes of so many books (a steely eyed hero pops up now and again, but they tend to get people killed pursuing idealistic crusades).
If you haven't already, invest the money and read The Desert of Stars (after Through Struggle, The Stars, of course). You won't regret it.