(cover shot borrowed from SF & F Books on Mars)
Threshold (2010) by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor is the sequel to Boundary (2006), which I read before I started this blog (thus, no review). In the first book, shortly after an archaeologist discovers the fossilized remains of an alien, killed by dinosaurs 65 million years ago, a space probe to Mars discovers similar remains in an ruined base on Phobos. Immediately, the government sends a research team to check it out.
It's a great story, with Flint's trademark teamwork approach and optimistic outlook. However, most of the story occurs before the team gets to Mars, and it doesn't grab the reader as quickly as it could. And I'm afraid the characters aren't especially appealing, either. (I'll get to that below.)
Threshold has the same appeal and the same flaws. The Ares Project, the research team in the first book, is busy colonizing Mars, working with the United Nations, while there's a new space race among Earth nations. When Ares discovers a new alien base on the asteroid Ceres, complete with alien ship and fusion reactors, the European Union sends a ship to spy on them. And that leads to a race to Saturn and attacks that could mean the first interplanetary war.
Like Boundary, Threshold is slow-starting, but it really gets going in the second half of the book. For a space enthusiast, it seems really optimistic, too. Sure, all this technology is discovered in rather improbable alien ruins, but that's just how things can move so quickly. As long as it seems plausible, then we can assume we'd discover these things on our own, eventually. (Yes, this is fiction, but it's optimistic fiction.)
But with both books, I keep thinking that I really should like them more than I do. Oh, they're entertaining, and I'm sure I'll buy the final volume. But they really don't grab me like I'd expect. And I think the problem - as in Spoor's standalone novel, Grand Central Arena - is with the characters.
The heroes of these books are athletic, attractive over-achievers, superior in pretty much every way. They've definitely got "the right stuff," with seemingly no flaws at all. I can't dislike them, but I can't find them appealing, either. I just find it hard to really care about them. It's like reading a book about homecoming kings and queens who ended up meeting all the high expectations everyone had of them.
Now, I don't know how an author writes characters that I immediately like, characters who are so appealing I just can't stop reading, because I care so much what happens to them. If I did, maybe I'd be writing books instead of just reading them. But maybe I can give some examples.
Think about Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan. He's a military genius, a brilliant man with incredible talents. But he's also a weird-looking little runt with brittle bones, a man about as far from a recruiting poster version of a soldier as you can get, who's born on a military-mad planet - and one where mutants are feared and despised, as well.
If Miles looked like his cousin Ivan, he'd just be an obnoxious know-it-all. Well, he's still an obnoxious know-it-all, I suppose, but we really care about him.
In Eric Flint's 1632 series, Gretchen is a gorgeous blonde with an incredible body. She's also smart and determined, with an iron will. But when we first meet her, she's a camp follower, carrying a rapist's bastard, trying desperately to protect her "family," most of whom aren't related to her at all. Would we care as much for her if she'd been a lord's daughter, someone who'd had every advantage from birth?
Or look at Mike Stearns, from the same series. He's truly an exceptional man, a brilliant leader, strong, powerful, confident. But he was a black sheep when he was younger, returning home when his family needed him. Without the truly incredible event that began the series, he would have spent his whole life as just an ordinary miner and union negotiator - skilled, but nothing exceptional. Stearns was not destined for greatness, but he courageously rose to the challenge when he was needed.
I'm not saying that characters need flaws. Indeed, I'd be hard pressed to identify a flaw in Mike Stearns. But appealing characters overcome their disadvantages. In Boundary and Threshold, it's hard to find anyone with a disadvantage to overcome. None of them have nightmares that plague them during stressful times. None have risen from bleak beginnings. None turned their lives around, and none have accomplished the unexpected, because great things were probably always expected of them.
Indeed, when these characters have any unique characteristics at all, it's that they're also gourmet cooks or experts in unarmed combat, in addition to all their other skills. I don't know. Maybe it's the whole situation. The first people on Mars are likely to be truly exceptional people, without a single flaw anywhere. That's quite true. But as characters, they're just not especially appealing.
As I noted, I had a similar problem with Grand Central Arena. I hated to say it, and I hate to say it here, because there's so much I like about these books. In so many ways, they're just what I'm looking for in science fiction. But characters - appealing characters, people that I can really, really care about - are so important to me in any work of fiction.
And,... OK, as long as I'm being critical, I might as well add that I didn't much like the bad guys in Threshold, either. First of all, you don't need highly capable bad guys - super-villains - in a story, because it's usually easy enough for dumb incompetents to cause harm. Just look at any drive-by shooting. And a really capable man who's especially good at his job is probably going to enjoy his work and have his pick of lucrative assignments. So why wouldn't he be happy with that?
And so you're left with a sociopath as an enemy, and I've never liked that. I guess it seems too easy, maybe. Or too random. Or... I don't know. But give me a better reason than that, please! The fact is, I always preferred Hal Clement's idea, that the universe makes a perfectly adequate villain. And indeed, that was exactly the case in Boundary. It could easily have been the same way in Threshold, especially given all the alien technology they were using.
I'm sure I'm sounding more critical than I mean to be. But if there wasn't so much to like here, I wouldn't be so disappointed in its flaws. Well, I will freely admit that these might not be flaws for anyone else. Characters just happen to be hugely important to me, and I have some real pet peeves, too. But my pet peeves might not be yours.
And consider this: I'm still buying this series in hardcover, and I'm not waiting until I can buy used books, either. So that must tell you something. As I say, there's a lot to like here.