According to his introduction from the 2010 edition, Robert Sawyer’s Starplex marked a turning point. Starting with his next novel, the Ontario writer would start publishing the type of present-day or near-future science fiction he is best known for today, with ordinary women and men dealing with perhaps one or two extraordinary changes in circumstance in an otherwise familiar world. But before this literary shift, he would write one final definitive hard SF epic.
Starplex has everything: a galactic empire; several human-comparable alien species; hints of at least one god-like, far-advanced race of beings; hyperspace travel and wormholes; space battles and time travel and the secret of the universe — as I said, Starplex is epic, at least in terms of scope. However, the book itself is fairly compact. In Sawyer’s hands, 300 pages is sufficient to tell a story of human destiny spanning billions of years, and he makes efficient use of the space.
In short order we are introduced to a wormhole network stitching together (at least) the Milky Way Galaxy; a federation of four sentient species of various stars (two from planet Earth, as it seems dolphin language was finally decoded); and the mission of the titular ship, an Enterprise-like exploration/science/diplomacy vessel.
Sawyer has often commented on how his childhood love of Star Trek influenced his later decision to become a science fiction writer. I’m fairly certain I’ve seen John Scalzi (Old Man’s War) make similar comments, and of course both authors are of the generation that grew up on television and movie science fiction as much as Asimov and Heinlein library copies.
I grew up on Next Generation rather than The Original Series, and I found that in comparison to Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise, the good ship Starplex is, politically and culturally, a century or two behind. For one thing, the crew members of Starplex are not yet species-blind (if, indeed, such should be the goal — certainly in 1996 Canada when and where the novel was written, that was the attitude toward race relations that I recall).
The multiplanet interspecies confederacy in Starplex is also less cohesive than the United Federation of Planets, next to which membership individual nationalities generally appear to be irrelevant or at least secondary. One gets the impression the alliance in Sawyer’s book is new: shaky and uncertain and, perhaps, not destined to last. It’s interesting as we can see we’re in a very early post-contact universe, and Sawyer’s “essentially pacifist space-opera” (to paraphrase his description) finds almost as much tension in the maintenance of diplomacy as in the possible fate of the universe itself.
The sub-plot of the protagonist’s mid-life crisis foreshadows Sawyer’s later penchant for combining prosaic human problems with highly speculative plot elements. In this seventh novel, Sawyer has already come a long way from the minimal, Clarkeian character arcs in his first novel. You can see the seeds of the more character-focused plots we would later see in Calculating God and The Neanderthal Parallax.
And taken, not as a prototype, version 0.9 as it were, of a late 1990s early 2000s Robert J. Sawyer novel, but simply as it is — as epic, universe-spanning hard SF space opera — this book holds up. As one more exemplar of the form, on a shelf with any comparable story by David Brin, Greg Bear, even Asimov or Clarke, Starplex does just fine.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.