Altered Starscape (2016) has its jumping off point (literally) in the year 2162. Humanity has been in contact with other galactic races for thirty-eight years, and still feels itself at a disadvantage in comparison with the many more advanced races. Earth’s government has entered into an alliance with some of those alien civilizations, receiving FTL travel capabilities, fusion power and other advanced technology in return for promised assistance in a vaguely understood alien war. Now the massive colony starship Tellus Ad Astra (“Earth to the stars”), carrying over a million people and AIs, is traveling to the Galactic Core on a cultural union mission.
The mission gets ripped off course when catastrophe strikes, resulting in the starship’s encountering the powerful black hole at the Galactic Core. When the dust settles, Commander Grayson St. Clair and the Tellus Ad Astra are some four billion years in the future. Their starship is confronted with a vastly different starscape ― our Milky Way galaxy has begun colliding with the Andromeda galaxy ― and alien spaceships and forces that attack without provocation. Can they find any help … and can they ever find their way back to their own time?
Altered Starscape combines a time travel plot and military space opera. It has an intriguing premise, but Ian Douglas seems intent on stuffing into its plot as many physics and space theories as humanly possible. The plot incorporates a myriad of scientific facts and theories, which is often quite interesting but may lose readers who aren’t well-versed in physics or don’t have the inclination to puzzle out unfamiliar scientific concepts. Actual and theoretical items like Fermi Paradox, SMBH (supermassive black hole), O’Neill colony, computronium (programmable matter), Alderson Disks, and countless other tricky concepts all elbow each other for room in the pages of this novel. Characters have a way of coming out with statements like “Either relativistic time dilation, or we encountered a Lorentzian manifold through frame-dragging” ― which then require a pause while these concepts are explained by one of the characters or the omniscient narrator. The plot often lags as a result of this frequent sidetracking.
This emphasis on science also comes at the cost of character development. The characters are easily recognizable stock types: the noble and tough-minded ship commander and Marines; the power-hungry, self-centered governmental personnel. It’s patently clear that Douglas sympathizes with the honorable military personnel and doesn’t have much use for career politicians. Human women are treated equally but there are intelligent “gynoids” (robots manufactured and sold as sex objects) that will rub some readers the wrong way, though Douglas does include a minor subplot about a movement to free these robots and other AIs from their enslavement to humanity.
Altered Starscape ends on somewhat of a cliff-hanger; the second volume in this ANDROMEDAN DARK series, Darkness Falling, was just published in November 2017. I’m interested enough to continue with the series, so we’ll see where the story goes from here. I recommend this novel for fans of hard science fiction who will appreciate its rather single-minded focus on imaginative scientific concepts.