Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, science fiction
Published by Tor Nightfire on April 4, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
Ness Brown's The Scourge Between Stars is a tense, claustrophobic sci-fi/horror blend set aboard a doomed generation ship harboring something terrible within its walls.
As acting captain of the starship Calypso, Jacklyn Albright is responsible for keeping the last of humanity alive as they limp back to Earth from their forebears’ failed colony on a distant planet.
Faced with constant threats of starvation and destruction in the treacherous minefield of interstellar space, Jacklyn's crew has reached their breaking point. As unrest begins to spread throughout the ship’s Wards, a new threat emerges, picking off crew members in grim, bloody fashion.
Jacklyn and her team must hunt down the ship’s unknown intruder if they have any hope of making it back to their solar system alive.
When we first meet Acting Captain Jacklyn Albright, the situation aboard the generation ship Calypso has already gone utterly pear-shaped. It just hasn’t grown a carapace and sprouted tentacles – at least not yet.
The Calypso is on her return journey to Earth after a failed colonization effort on Proxima B. A return journey that feels jinxed to Jack and to her crew. The ship’s structural integrity, already a bit iffy after being exposed to the elements on Proxima B, has been taking random, heavy fire from invisible alien ships at irregular intervals. They’ve lost decks, they’ve lost people, they’ve lost hope. And there’s been no communication from the aliens – whoever they are and whatever they want.
Because of the structural damage, they’ve had to slow their journey way, way down to avoid shaking the ship to pieces. As a result, they don’t have enough supplies to feed all 6,000 souls aboard all the way home.
They need a miracle. Jack needs a miracle. What she has is a shaky command and a rioting population while the real captain, her own father, has locked himself in his quarters and doesn’t bother to even shout through the door when she bangs on it.
She’s afraid to force that door and find out he’s dead, because that’s EXACTLY what happened to her mother.
The situation would be more than enough to keep any captain awake – and it’s certainly doing a major number on the acting captain. Which is just when conditions that couldn’t possibly get worse manage to grow that carapace and sprout those tentacles.
Jack may not know why those invisible aliens on the outside are taking potshots at her ship but she’s just learned she’s got more immediate problems on the inside. The Calypso is infested with xenomorphs – and it’s all her father’s fault.
Escape Rating A-: Whether The Scourge Between Stars is science fiction or horror depends on which side of that divide the reader thinks the movie Alien belongs. And I’m still not sure and don’t care because The Scourge Between Stars was simply a gripping, stellar, SF story and reading rather than watching let my mind gloss over the actual alien carnage enough to appreciate the story those aliens are eating their way through.
Also, it was easy to get sucked into the horror of it all because, like T. Kingfisher’s recent A House with Good Bones, when the story begins the horror is mundane. Still terrible, but not eldritch. That the captain is MIA in his quarters, that he’s her dad, that her mother committed suicide and her sister died in a recent attack by the invisible aliens, that the journey home is going to take longer than the ship has food or fuel, that the population is rioting for more food rations they don’t have, that the head of cybernetics has modified an android to have extra intelligence and look too much like her sister – and that the dude creeps out on it in public – are all more than enough to be horrifyingly worrisome without slipping into true eldritch horror.
By the time the story does slip over that line into xenomorphs dragging human corpses through the walls it’s far too late for the reader to escape the gravity well of the story.
That there are also elements of both Adam Oyebanji’s Braking Day and David Ramirez’ The Forever Watch just made the story all that much more compelling for this reader, as both are marvelous generation ship stories that also use the “we have met the enemy and he is us” scenario to its full horrifying effects in somewhat similar ways, while each still being different enough from the others to make the way the situation plays out to be surprising but not the same surprise.
Jack made a terrific – if often terrified and trying to hide it – perspective into this flying, crumbling, encapsulated world. She’s doing her best, she always feels like a bit of an impostor, she’s scared, she’s desperate, and she’s trying to keep it together and keep her people alive no matter how much it eats her up from the inside out.
We feel her fear, her horror, her desperation and her exhaustion, and it keeps us with her every step of the way. Unfortunately we also feel her righteous creeping dread of that one dude with the android a bit too much. It was an injection of sexual harassment by proxy and just weirded me out.
On the other hand, the android itself was a much more fantastic character than I expected given its introduction, and I loved the way the author seemed to lampshade Data from Star Trek Next Gen without this android, Watson, actually being Data.
The ending of The Scourge Between Stars read like just a bit of a deus ex machina. It didn’t feel completely earned, but it did make for an upbeat conclusion that I really wasn’t expecting but was very happy to get anyway.
This is the author’s debut novella, which is wonderful and astonishing because it’s a delightful surprise when an author hits it out of the park on their first time at bat. It gives me high hopes indeed for their next book, whenever and wherever it appears!