Jerry Pournelle has been writing hard SF for decades. He's co-authored some of the field's most famous bestsellers, most often with Larry Niven, including Lucifer's Hammer, The Mote in God's Eye, Footfall, and others. A Step Farther Out, a collection of his articles covering everything from the Big Bang to the rapid disappearance of non-renewable resources, caught my attention many years ago. Although not truly science fiction, I particularly enjoyed it, and it showcases better than any other book I know the depth and breadth of knowledge Pournelle possesses. He comes at SF from a unique point of view -- as a former practicing psychologist, systems engineer, computer columnist, and general Jack-of-all- trades. Sterling qualifications for a writer of any kind, and when combined with a natural gift for storytelling, it makes a formidable resume.
His latest is an old-style adventure novel, and Pournelle's first solo outing in years. Kip Brewster, a young boy living with his uncle at Starswarm Station research outpost, has had a voice in his head for as long as he can remember. The voice has helped guide him though numerous problems, with helpful information and insight. Trouble begins when rumours of Starswarm Base's immanent closure begin to circulate, and Kip finds himself asking the voice some very tough questions... and receiving hard answers. Learning that his parents were both killed, Kip begins a journey of discovery into his past, just as the present becomes more and more dangerous. Soon Kip uncovers who his parents actually were -- and in so doing, puts himself in very real danger.
I don't remember the last time I read a book in two days. My usual reading time is closer to two weeks. This is the most compelling testimonial I can give. There is no sweeping social commentary, no weighty subtext to kill the momentum -- just an engaging and believable humanistic story set in the future.
Pournelle does a particularly convincing job of getting into the head of a 13-year-old boy. My first impression, in fact, was that it was a young adult work. But ultimately it's more a tribute to the author's empathic skill than a matter of deliberate tone. Starswarm is a dynamic coming-of-age tale, and not only is the characterization of Kip fully realized, but the emotional resonance between Kip and his friends rings true.
Starswarm offers ample explanation for Pournelle's longevity as an SF writer. The set-up is natural and believable, and I found myself settling comfortably into the environment quite quickly. Yes, like most of Pournelle's work, this is a hard SF read, yet the strongest element of the book is unquestionably the characterization.
As for that inevitable question in these days of the ambush saga, I doubt there will be a sequel. But I've been surprised before. If the book is as popular as I believe it could be... who knows?