1970’s A Thunder of Stars is the first volume in Dan Morgan and John Kippax’s Venturer science fiction series, which showcases the adventures of the Venturer 12 and its crew.
Humanity has spread out across thousands of the nearer stars. Vast, amoral corporations like the Excelsior Corporation have built and populated colonies — but it is up to the Space Corps to establish the rule of law1 and deal with crises. It’s responsible for a huge volume of space. Missions will last years. Crew must be dedicated and capable. But how to choose the crew?
Commander Tom Bruce and Lt. Commander Helen Lindstrom of System Patrol are the front-runners for positions as captain and second in command of the new Venturer-class ship of the Space Corps. But some commissioners are pushing an anti-Bruce agenda.
The anti-Bruce faction demonstrates considerable flexibility in its reasoning, adroitly recasting new facts as they come to light as reasons to reject Bruce. Bruce’s qualifications are not really the issue. The issue is that certain members of the Commissioning Board want someone else and are determined to get their way.
While the Commissioning Board deliberates, Bruce and Lindstrom return to solar system patrol. Routine patrol is interrupted by crisis. The colony ship Athena comes screaming back into the system; it has been hijacked by mutineers. The mutineers had enough technical know-how to point the ship at the Earth, but not enough to avoid burning out the engines. They have no control over the ship’s course. The Athena is now a missile pointed at New York City, where it will hit at nearly a third the speed of light. Bruce does the math: better that five hundred colonists die than fifteen million on Earth2. He orders Athena blown out of the sky.
The anti-Bruce faction of the Commissioning Board now points to the destruction of Athenaas a reason not to give Bruce the posting. The malevolent Excelsior company, determined to avoid inconvenient revelations about conditions on the colony world or accept any liability for the mutiny, is likewise eager to paint Bruce as the villain.
Despite the orchestrated public outcry over Athena’s destruction, Bruce does have the facts on his side. He wouldn’t have been able to stop the Athena in the time available any other way. Failure to act would have doomed a city full of people. The logic is seemingly unassailable.
But … this is not the first time Bruce has felt it necessary to kill colonists. Fifty dead colonists on Minos IV could attest to this, were they able to attest to anything.
To clarify: Venturer 12 books 1 through 3—A Thunder of Stars (1968), Seed of Stars (1972) and The Neutral Stars (1973) — were co-written with Dan Morgan. Where No Stars Guide (1975) was written by Kippax alone. At least one more volume was planned but, because Kippax died, was never published. The series ended on a monumental cliff-hanger.
Interestingly for a book of this vintage (1968 according to the ISFDB, 1970 according to the copyright in the book itself), the Space Corps is firmly committed to staffing its ships with both men and women of all races3. It’s a pity that the narrative makes it clear that women who stick with the service do so despite the apparent inevitability that they will bitterly rue their choice at the end of their childless careers. Curiously enough, command staff seem almost unanimous that Lindstrom should stick with the Corps, despite the apparent certainty that if she lives long enough to retire — in no way guaranteed — she will be a sad, solitary figure. And quite possibly crippled as well.
This embrace of diversity does not, alas, extend to any non-heteronormative folk. There is a single (acknowledged) lesbian4 in this book, who is present as a pitiful figure before she is squashed in an industrial accident. (One might call it an implausible accident except that it is pretty clear that health and safety standards in this service are terrible.)
In an interesting divergence from current practice, fraternization is expected. Allowing it to interfere with doing one’s duty’s is forbidden. As far as Bruce is concerned, allowing mere affection to interfere with service to THE CORPS is heresy. When Lindstrom suggests she might turn down the promotion lest it end her affair with him, he immediately dumps her5.
The narrative gives Lindstrom as much page time as Bruce (yay for equality!). That’s just as well, as Bruce isn’t at all an engaging protagonist: he’s a diligent but dull martinet. Though, if I’m going to be honest (which I always am) neither Lindstrom nor Bruce seem particularly gifted with people skills, which would make the impending years-long mission super fun for subordinates6.
Other writers might have opened a space patrol series with a slam-bang space battle. Thunder starts off with paperwork and Calvin-Ball-esque committee-infighting. Focusing on two-fisted bureaucratic struggles is a pretty gutsy move and so is discussing the public relations aftermath of one of those Contrived Hard Decisions of which SF is so fond.
Malevolent aliens do make an appearance — off-stage, well after the fact, in court room testimony about the Minos IV incident. No fun there.
A Thunder of Star is comprehensively awful, from the dull prose and horrid poetry to the fitful progress of the plot. I kept wanting it to be good but it never was. There might have been the seeds of something interesting there, but germinating them appears to have been beyond the authors’ skill.
At least the Dean Ellis cover was eye-catching.
I cannot imagine why this series was able to limp along for four volumes. As it happens, I bought the set so no doubt I will find out.
A Thunder of Stars is totally out of print.
1: Which include stomping on political deviationism.
“The Mafti Three case was heard before the Supreme Court five years ago and the findings of the court were in favour of the Space Corps action, which was taken to curb undesirable political developments in the administration of the colony.”
The text is unclear about the nature of the undesirable political developments. At least it’s clear Earth has mandatory presidential elections. It’s not clear if and when those elections are held. Perhaps it’s only when the president in office dies?
2: See the extensive literature on the trolley problem.
3: Although not too many hotties, as they are distracting.
“M/F balance of crew. Maranne — too dammed sexy?”
4: How many closeted queer folk are there in the space services? The dead woman seems to have been stuck groundside because she’s lesbian, and there is no hint that Lindstrom’s horrified reaction to a pass is unusual, so there’s a lot of incentive for queer folk to maintain a low profile.
5: Bruce sends a subordinate to collect his gear from Lindstrom’s quarters, which is really a dick move.
6: Lindstrom makes it pretty clear she intends to use her position as second in command to police who sleeps with Bruce. I can see no way that this could go horribly wrong.