Here is an awesome sci-fi premise: Humans find at the edge of the solar system the entrance to a vast network of dimensional portals leading to other worlds all across the universe. No one knows who built it, or how it works—only that is does work.
With that tantalizing grand sci-fi mystery as a premise we begin Star Road, by Matthew Costello and the late Rick Hautala, a high-speed space action thriller that tips a hat, head, and most of the shoulders to Joss Whedon.
(Another name worth mentioning is Mad Max. But while the influence of Road Warrior and Firefly are superficially evident, I felt that the execution of Star Road owed more to A.E. van Vogt, for better or worse.)
This is first and foremost an action road-trip with plenty shoot-em-up “car” chases. Read if you want creepy alien mech constructs swarming over your spaceship while you’re in a firefight with a battle-cruiser, read if you want blast-em-up car chases on rickety jet ramps built over primordial oceans where sea monsters just might take a bite out of your ship if you get too close.
There’s a distinct horror flair that occasionally overshadowed the rational “why?” required by science fiction. Anyone remember that scene in Galaxy Quest when they have to pass through the timed mashers and fire to get to the Omega 13? That’s in here. But if car chases in space are your thing, look no further. (And for all you romance readers holding your breath, sorry, there’s next to zero romance. Go back to your dinosaur-on-human erotica.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, Star Road doesn’t have the massive cast of a true space opera, but there are plenty of characters coming in and out of the scenes. You have your requisite crew mish-mash: a war-weary gunner, a cool-handed captain, the scientist, a religious Seeker, a salty space-miner, a spunky adrenaline-junkie, and the government guy-with-secrets. Add to that a seemingly omniscient/omnipresent Super-Duper Space Federation, and a gaggle of space pirates called the Reavers—I mean, the Runners—and you can see why this was a fun if somewhat recycled read.
While we are down in the thick of things with the main group of characters, we’re told to care deeply about the larger struggle between Empire and Rebellion, as well as the internecine strife within the Rebel group. But the larger struggle never felt wholly tangible or meaningful.
Costello and Hautala write from multiple vantage points to connect us to the secret motives and thoughts of each character as they rush towards the final showdown on a distant planet. However, this relentless head-hopping ends up wearying me, and I end up not feeling close enough to any character to really understand or care for their motives. Speaking of motives, sometimes there just weren’t any. I caught myself facepalming with a “What are they thinking?” or “Why would they do that?” a few times.
(By the way: Hard sci-fi readers beware. They actually drive on the star road. In space. No, I don’t know why there is gravity. I think Asimov just twitched in his grave.)
But Star Road is about action and high-speed chases and creepy alien corpses being resurrected so heroes with blasters can fry them into bacon bits (rather than, say, about emotional resonance and astonishing truth about the human condition). I just wish that that awesome sci-fi premise we started off with resolved into a mind-blowing sci-fi answer.