Rating: 5 out of 5
J.B. Rockwell’s Forgotten Stars & Distant Seas is mostly sci-fi, but it also contains a nice dose of horror in the latter half. Captain Tom Faraday has been dumped in a babysitting role–his ship guards a science vessel that’s working to terraform the most promising planet yet. He and Doctor Anthea Naisson–the head scientist–seem to clash, but it remains to be seen how well they can work together when needed. Unfortunately, it becomes necessary very quickly. A mysterious sensor flicker becomes a cascading sensor network failure, and before they know it, there are a lot of unexpected ships coming at them. When the AI system of Tom’s ship becomes compromised, everything is turned on its head, and Tom and Anthea end up landing on a possibly-livable planet–with no ability to leave.
Roughly the first half of this is nifty material about terraforming, ship AIs, Tom, Anthea, and some seriously pulse-pounding space battles. The world-building is great, and the action is every bit as good. In the second half, we get to see an alien planet, some colony ships, and the hope that they’ve found a new place to live. Yet as they explore, they discover the planet looks much more welcoming than it is.
The side characters are surprisingly well-drawn, given how many of them die at one point or another. It’s easy to care about what happens to them. There’s also some seriously intriguing world-building going on–both in the case of the background to the space battle, and in the case of the mysterious planet. Tom and Anthea are both grouches, and neither of them seems to particularly like people in general, but apart from a few clashes early on they get along pretty well. It’s a normal and enjoyable level of push-and-pull rather than the over-dramatized kind of thing you see in some stories. I totally understand each of the times that they can’t quite connect.
The ship AIs–Hadrian and Persephone–are also really fascinating. There’s a question of just how “alive” they are, and whether “emulators” just allow them to fake emotions to make them more interesting, or actually make them somehow emotional creatures. There are no easy answers, which I like.
This is a wonderful story that kept me glued to my e-reader. It’s at turns exciting, heart-warming, and horrifying. Rockwell is one author I’ll have to keep an eye on, clearly!