Sunday, October 25, 2009

Transition by Vonda N. McIntyre

After their startling entry into a new star system, and announcing their arrival with the detonation of an atomic missile fired at their leaving ship by members of the American military, J.D. Sauvage and the rest of the members of the alien contact team on board Starfarer ready themselves for the exploration of the new system. They already have a signal coming from one of the planets- a weak signal not meant to reach beyond the solar system.

But even as they take off on a scouting craft to explore this new system of Tau Ceti that they have found themselves in, the main ship is having problems- the least of which is the damage from the nuclear missile fired at them at the end of the last book. Part of the ship is an open cylinder the recreates various earth ecosystems, complete with plants and small animals. But the light in it comes from solar radiation, and when they were near earth, the sun's light was just fine to keep the system from running smoothly. Now that they are in a new system with a star whose light is different from the sun's, it's causing problems for the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the team of Alien Contact Experts are dealing with their own problems. The minute they land on one of the moons in the system with a dome, there is a nuclear explosion that destroys pretty much everything on the moon. As far as they can tall, the dome was a museum filled with information- but nothing is left. Was it their presence that destroyed it, or did it have to do with the nuclear missile that went off in the system? The nuclear missile that nearly destroyed the Starfarer and still caused it massive damage may have caused them far more problems than they could have anticipated.

However, their continued exploration of the Tau Ceti system eventually brings a response, two human visitors who were uplifted from earth's past and are now part of a galactic Federation who wants nothing to do with the Starfarer or its crew because of the nuclear explosion. These two arrogant, dismissive humans tell J.D. and her team that every world they attempt to land on will be destroyed to prevent their warlike ways from contaminating this galactic civilization- and that maybe in 500 or so years, the galaxy will believe they have changed.

Of course, the alien contact team aren't going to take that sitting down, but politics back on the ship, and the ongoing illness of Stephen Thomas create a lot of worry on the part of his family and friends. Stephen Thomas mourns the loss of his friend from the first novel, whom he wanted to join the marriage he shares with Victoria and Satoshi, and Victoria explores her own attraction to her friend, J.D. and the Diver, Zev as other characters struggle to keep the ship, and everyone else, alive. But as further acts of sabotage occur, the scientists must work together with the others trapped on the ship to undo the damage and allow them to go home. The question is, can they achieve it so far from home?

Second books are always a little more dull than first or third books, but I didn't find that to be the case in this one. There are two plots going on- the alien contact team are attempting to find out about Tau Ceti and any alien civilizations that they might encounter, and the rest of the scientists and crew, who are dealing with the damage and devastation inside Starfarer as they attempt to survive when the ship's systems start breaking down. It's much harder than many of them thought it was going to be- half the buildings on the "campus" are collapsed or damaged, and all the food service and hospitality workers are gone after the government decrees. And even the robot AIs are gone, taken out by an act of sabotage- so it's getting rather uncomfortable inside the ship- and that's not even going into the political problems on board!

Still, as the scientists and alien contact team attempt to solve their respective and collective difficulties, the story just zips along as things go from bad to worse- Stephen Thomas comes down with a strange illness, and his partners worry that because he was in the Biochem building when it collapsed, he may have contacted a disease from one of the cultures there. It takes a while for the truth about his condition to be revealed, but the tension is certainly there because you want to find out what is going on.

The only "problem" with this book is that the cover makes it seem like this book is set in the same universe, yet unrelated to Starfarers, when in fact, it is a sequel to the first story. Readers who pick up this book without reading the first book will find it confusing, as the book assumes you know the characters from the first volume, and doesn't give any space at all to retelling the first story or reintroducing the characters, it just drops you in the deep end to sink or swim. And if you've read the first book, that's fine- the story was fascinating enough that you are going to remember the characters pretty well.

The interpersonal relationships from the first volume continue and are enlarged upon in this volume. Does that mean sex? Yes, it does! And it's described pretty comprehensively, but also vaguely enough to not go into pornographic detail. Some might find the sex scenes annoying or overdone, but they speak to the closening bonds of the characters, as well as makes them more completely whole and human- Humans use sex for many things besides procreation, and comfort and closeness are just two of some of them- and that describes a lot of the sexual encounters in this book. I'll also point out that almost nothing puts humans off sex for long, so I didn't find the sex scenes to be silly or superfluous. I treasured them for the humanity they brought to the characters.

I found this book fascinating and a welcome follow-up to Starfarers, letting me see more of the characters I most enjoyed from the book, and expanding their story into a new solar system. Again, this is not the first time I read the book, and it still made me want to read more. An engaging second volume well-set to lure you into the third. Excellently done and highly recommended.

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