My first DNF of the year: statistically, it was bound to happen sooner or later, but still the disappointment stings… The blurb for this book promised a space opera focused on an organization, the NeoG, labeled as the space equivalent of the Coast Guard, and on the crew of one particular ship, Zuma’s Ghost, also adding that “A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more […]”.
Quite intriguing, indeed, and the start of the novel – despite some slight info-dump concerning the characters – introduced some captivating themes, like the promotion and subsequent transfer of a beloved second in command coinciding with the arrival of a new officer, whose past history and present uncertainties would add some spice to the interpersonal mechanics aboard the ship. Given these premises I expected a lively, adventurous story peppered with some interesting character evolution, but unfortunately things did not work that way at all.
From the very start the story seems focused solely on the annual Boarding Games that pit the various branches of Earth’s military against each other, with much space given to Zuma’s Ghost’s commander and crew lamenting their defeat in the previous edition of the Games, and their preparations for the upcoming session: up to the point where I stopped reading there were only a couple of instances in which the crew faced emergencies related to their actual job, and they were solved quickly, almost off-handedly, immediately going back to talk of the impending Games. From a quick online search I discovered that the more adventurous section of the story does come into play once the “Space Olympics” are over, but I could not find the strength to go through chapter after chapter of fights and simulated battles to reach what might have been the “meat” of the story.
To be entirely truthful, I have to admit I don’t care for team sports of any kind, so that might very well have colored my reaction to this story, but still I don’t understand the importance of the competition in the economy of the novel (at least as it’s presented in the blurb): a passing reference seems to indicate that the winning faction would get the greater portion of the government’s funds destined to military operations, and since NeoG did not gather any wins they are forced to go into space with sub-standard and/or old equipment. If that’s how things are in this future vision of humanity, it’s a ludicrous way indeed to manage a space-faring civilization…
Which brings me to the background, or rather scarcity of it: there are references to a Collapse that threatened to end civilization, but since it’s now four centuries in the past no more details are given about what it entailed, or how Earth overcame it; technology seems advanced enough – ships achieving light speed, instant communications spanning great distances with no time-lag, rejuvenating treatments keeping people young well beyond human standards, and so on – but it looks like an afterthought rather than an organic part of the whole. Then you are met with weird details like swords as onboard armament because “no one yet had the lock on a reliable handheld laser weapon”. Granted, once my inner Nasty Nitpicker is awakened, it tends to sink its teeth onto these trivial details and to never let go, but to me this speaks of poor planning, or editing, or both.
When all is said and done, A Pale Light in the Black looks like the kind of book I might have read – and probably enjoyed – a few decades ago, when I began reading SF: now that I have a good number of books under my proverbial belt, and that I have hopefully honed my tastes, books like this one feel totally unsatisfying. This is not the droid… pardon me … the novel I was looking for.