There are a host of reasons to read this book if you are a science fiction fan, and even if you’re not. Jerry Pournelle has put together an adventure story that is gripping from start to finish: Starswarm.
Let’s start with the characters. This is a coming of age story, and Kip, the young orphaned boy with a “past,” doesn’t disappoint. He is believeable from the get go, and Pournelle does a good job of aging him subtly. You are rooting for him to win, cringe at his struggles against a bully, love his super intelligent dogs, and laugh at the petty jealousies he develops concerning Lara, the young love interest.
Speaking of Lara, she is resourceful and fun, but not over the top in any “Mary Sue” obnoxious, girl in kick-ass mode that you see so often in modern science fiction. Starswarm was published in 1998, so this trend was just catching fire (Buffy the Vampire had been released, perhaps the apogee of this phenomenon), but Pournelle avoids getting suckered into this trap of “over endowing” a heroine, especially a supporting character. Kip and Lara are friends who are just on the cusp of puberty. There is only a slight sexual tension beginning which feels appropriate and real. Another boy, Marty the bully, enters the fray, and a tentative love triangle forms. But none of this is over the top.
And Pournelle allows Marty to transform from bully to friend. My high school American Literature teacher, the esteemed Mrs. Nancy Loucks, used to call this dynamism, and used to hail it as something that marked an excellent writer – if he had characters change, and they did it believably, that was a writer of talent! Well, Pournelle would get an “A” from Loucks, and that is no small feat, let me tell you from personal experience.
Besides characterization, what’s a key part of a science fiction yarn like this? World building. Purgatory, a planet owned by a super rich corporation on earth, is a harsh and variegated place. Just barely habitable for humans, it features strange wildlife that are just at the point of asserting themselves against the invading human horde. The starswarms are native, vast, underwater plants and more than what they seem. They function as “nature” in the book, and there knowledge and power are growing. They are prepping to defend themselves, and this sideline conflict of nature vs. man in the book feeds into the main conflict of Kip finding out who he really is, and fighting alongside the starswarms to allow humans to stay on Purgatory…perhaps!
The writing moves at a fast clip, but not too fast. The only complaint I have in this regard is how quickly Pournelle ends the book. Too much like ripping off a bandaid! I would have liked a little more denouement. The main villain appears for a hot second and then – resolution! Maybe ten pages more and I would have been happy.
So, in short, read it! Like Sally Field, you’ll like it, you’ll really like it!