Book Title: But The Stars
Author: Peter Cawdron
Publication Date: March 27, 2020
Available on: Amazon as an eBook and as a paperback
Indie Athenaeum Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
It’s the 22nd century and the crew of their starship Acheron is in orbit, exploring the distant ice world of P4 around the star WISE 5571. After establishing a research station, they’re there for several months and along the way, they noticed that they were not alone and an unusual life form was there!
In an effort to escape the planet and its inhabitants, things go sideways and their lives are at risk as the research station begins falling apart around them! Trying to escape, Dante, the ship’s flight surgeon, won’t leave her friends behind. But tentacles slither out of the darkness and grab her legs! Falling unconscious, she awakens on her ship like nothing changed. So, what is going on here?!?!
From here on in, everything Dante thinks she knows is now questioned. At first, she seems to be the only one who experienced this trauma down on the planet’s surface and her crew treats her like she is crazy. They even question whether the events she describes down there occurred. But as the novel continues, the mystery deepens and piece by piece, she puts together an idea of what is happening. Or does she?
From Dante’s allegiances and relationships with the other eight members of the crew, nothing in her reality can be considered sacred and unquestioned. From her colleagues to the artificial intelligence Jeeves IV, reality is malleable and constantly changing. Can she outwit the aliens, figure out the scope of the problem and save her crewmates?
Reading this story, Dante’s reality is constantly shifting. She thinks she’s standing on steady ground and has the situation figured out. Then, it shakes uncontrollably, throwing everything she knows out the window. When it stabilizes, she thinks she’s safe again and begins testing hypotheses until the ground shakes again and reality throws her another curveball.
This ability to not trust what your senses tell you, no matter how strongly it feels real, is at the heart of the novel. As the reader, I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. This feeling of not knowing what was coming next made for intense reading. I found myself taking each morsel that Dante discovered and trying to picture the entire puzzle with only a few pieces.
Each time I thought I knew where the story was going to go, I was proven wrong. This kinetic storytelling style violated my sense of equilibrium many times as I was reading it. With the impact of all these different aspects of reality changing, I experienced a visceral sense of constant discombobulation. But it also made for a thrilling mystery where nothing is what it seems.
These aliens engage in psychological warfare in their inability to invade minds and manipulate the emotions of the crew. It also makes it very personal and Dante has difficulty separating the emotions from the logic she needs to properly evaluate the situation. As she tries to deconstruct her reality, I found myself rooting for her with each success and was sad when her attempts to figure something out failed.
By the time Dante and her crew think they know what’s happening and all is revealed, it then upends her reality in the most drastic way possible. The tension reaches its peak and its frenetic action to its ending. Then, as I took a moment to catch my breath, I still questioned that unsettling feeling that was still present. Not everyone makes it out of this one alive and due to the nature of the continual surprises here, it reaches a fantastic finale.
When it’s all over, I felt like I’ve been on a cruise for a week, having developed my sea legs. Then, when I arrived back on dry land by the end of this novel, I still felt the ground sway underneath my feet for a long time after. That constant high level of stress took a while to come down from.
All of this is filtered through Dante’s point of view as she constantly ascertains her dilemma. She is the surrogate for the reader as we experience reality through her eyes and get frustrated by the increasingly difficult scenarios she faces. It’s only when she applies reason and logic to the situation does she find some success. Utilizing trial and error methods, at first for herself and then for her crewmates, she’s able to find the tiny cracks in the façade being shown to her.
Dante herself is given much dimension through the use of her memories. Her motivations to go into space, her fascination with astronomy, her deep friendships with members of the crew and her upbringing are extremely relevant to demonstrating her humanity. It also proves to be important to her solving the complex situation she now faces.
All of Dante’s crewmates are also fleshed out as well and given plenty of personalities to distinguish one from another. Each character is fleshed out through Dante’s recollections of her interactions with them. Their differentiation from one another is important, and not just by rank and role on the Acheron.
It is this personal knowledge of her crewmates that Dante can leverage in her efforts to figure out this conundrum. Therefore, it is a vital aspect of the story and it succeeds mightily in that regard.
The aliens are given characterization of their own as well, though their actions speak for them. While they use telepathy to hide and can manipulate the thoughts of the crew, they also learn from every interaction they have. The more they learn from each crewmate, the stronger they become. This increases their ability to control the situation and bend it more to their advantage. As a result, their wily behavior makes for increasingly escalating tension throughout the whole novel.
Science is, as always, integrated beautifully into the story by the author. There are little bits of knowledge peppered in there about astronomy, how humans perceive color, the way specific aspects of the human brain works or how physics affects a crucial, hair-raising sequence later in the novel. I was especially surprised how the author explained that a brain can be severed in two and have two distinct, conscious personalities (!).
Having read many other stories by this author, I can tell you that this a unique departure from his usual stories. It is a story about first contact with aliens, but each one of his first contact novels is different from one another and this one is especially so. He still displays many of the hallmarks of his writing, but this is probably the most startling one so far.
This novel is the equivalent of an escape room where you must solve increasing difficult puzzles to progress, win the game and exit before the timer runs out. Except here, the stakes are life and death for Dante and her colleagues. When reality is not what you perceive it to be, it wreaks havoc on your expectations and your ability to try to figure out where the story would go next. This story is the definition of that idea.
It is the most unpredictable novel he has written yet, and that is saying something, given the already high quality of other stories I’ve read by him. I found this novel to be an extraordinarily clever and suspenseful story with many delightful twists and turns. Go ahead and start reading to enjoy this electrifying science fiction thrill ride!
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Previous Indie Athenaeum book reviews about stories by Peter Cawdron include “3zekiel“, “Retrograde“, “Reentry“, “Hello World – An Anthology of Short Stories” and “Chronicle Worlds: Legacy Fleet – An Anthology of Speculative Fiction – Future Chronicles, Book 20“.