Carlos Yu here.
Through Struggle, the Stars
A Human Reach Novel
By John J. Lumpkin
Copyright 2011 John J. Lumpkin
The important things out of the way first: Through Struggle, the Stars is a solid, readable first novel. I would read this novel’s sequel, and I would consider reading an unrelated novel by this author. It’s well-paced and has moments of genuine dramatic tension, a B in a world without grade inflation.
Through Struggle, the Stars is military science fiction without being military pulp science fiction. It’s not a dumb adventure novel of the kind where your IQ points are used for target practice by the writer, and it doesn’t read like someone else’s fetish porn. Quite frankly, this is probably why it hasn’t found a publisher yet. The story is jingo-neutral, or close to it.
Lumpkin has put some thought into each of his set pieces and how they fit into the overall plot of the book. The space combat is realistic in that ships radiate energy like real physical objects, they move with very low accelerations, and they are very vulnerable to hypervelocity impacts. Lasers in space and as a form of artillery have important roles. Lumpkin abides by the constraints of his imaginary wormhole technology, and he uses the local stellar neighborhood as his playground. It’s not totally rigorous, but he’s put in some work.
There is a nagging problem with inconsistency in the setting, however. I’m not sure whether this would be picked up by the general science fiction reader, should such a person exist, but it jarred me. Simply put, the timescales are off. A social setting that would not be a bad extrapolation of today’s demographics in 2050 is given a date of 2139. Future institutions are immediately recognizable. Technological progress outside of the space applications sector has moved very, very slowly —there are no flashy advances in automation or genetic engineering, for example. Despite Japan becoming a major power once again through its first mover advantage in space technology, economic convergence between the richer nations and the poorer nations has stopped. At the same time, interstellar colonies on previously barely habitable worlds somehow have reached populations in the millions and have been settled for decades, and there is significant commerce. Many nations have colonies.
This mismatch in timescales is a shame, because each part of Lumpkin’s universe feels realistic enough. If anything, his setting feels a little too contemporary — a scene involving a Mercedes and a brawl in a casino parking lot comes to mind.
The politics of colonization motivate the background of the plot — true terra nullius, there are no aliens so far in this setting. There is a worldwide belief in the necessity of developing colonies off-Earth to maintain cultural and biological survival due to the horrible effects of a near-future asteroid impact. This belief has merged with a resurgent nationalism. Policymakers also believe that wars between superpowers can escalate incrementally, perhaps because of the excellent defensive countermeasures in this setting, but I wonder if Lumpkin has in the back of his mind what happens when the conditions for deterrence through mutually assured destruction no longer apply.
The characterization in Through Struggle, the Stars was, for want of a better word, adequate. The soldiers are more fully realized than the intelligence agents. I didn’t believe in the motivations of the two principal Chinese agents, but it wasn’t because of “characterization through ethnic stereotype,” and they are presented as outliers. People die, and I am pretty sure that Lumpkin has read Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet in the Brain.” (Go read it. It’s short.)
Through Struggle, the Stars is an emotionally cool book. It lacks some of the quirky outsider energy of classic science fiction, but it also lacks the same undercurrents of dogmatism and score-settling. This book is not about saving the world with a single grand gesture, or flipping the table over to reveal the rot underneath; it’s about conflicted people in the military and the intelligence services at a particular point in geopolitical history. I enjoyed how the Big Secret turned out not to have very much effect, although it is conceptually important.
I’m more than happy to answer any questions.