Ian Douglas’ BLOODSTAR: STAR CORPSMAN: BOOK ONE (or maybe it’s STAR CORPSMAN: BLOODSTAR: BOOK ONE; the cover and title page on my review copy differ) is a novel with one hell of an idea at its center, an idea that’s a little too big to sum up easily.
The smaller and simpler-to-communicate hook is that the story’s about space Marines — that stalwart science-fiction mainstay since ALIENS — but with the wrinkle that our hero/narrator isn’t a hardened soldier; he’s a battlefield medic.
Does this stop him from being suitably (and at times, a bit excessively) bad-ass? Of course not. But he runs headlong into terrifying situations without the combat training of the Marines around him, and this gives the story a different feel than your normal space Marine yarn. Corpsman Elliot Carlyle may do an awful lot in this story, but he’s a passive observer to a good chunk of the action as well.
He’s also very chatty. Not with other characters, mind you, but as a narrator. BLOODSTAR — I’m gonna go with BLOODSTAR because that’s what’s on the page headers — is maybe 50 percent exposition. Hardly a bit of interstellar politicking, Marine training or medical work can go by without our hero explaining the whys and wherefores. This is a good and a bad thing.
It’s good because Douglas has formed a really compelling universe, one that often feels surprisingly plausible. In many ways, I could genuinely believe BLOODSTAR’S future as showing where we, as a species, are actually headed in a couple of centuries. Even more importantly, Carlyle’s narrative voice succeeds at walking that fine line between “extremely smart and well-informed” and “understandable to all of us normal dummies.”
The bad side of the vast, vast amounts of exposition is that when our hero is in the middle of trying to resuscitate a teammate who’s been nearly blown apart, while combat rages all around him, it’s hard to have the action suddenly stop for a page of text about blood cells. It has a tendency to kill momentum.
My favorite parts of BLOODSTAR weren’t all the future weaponry and space battles, surprisingly enough. They were scenes that could take the time to look around at the world, as well as the science, both fictional and real, (or real enough for me to believe it) that supports that world. It’s clear that Carlyle really wants to tell the reader about stuff, and that’s fine when the plot lets him do it.
The author does an especially great job with one piece of exposition central to the book’s concept, the bare bones of which involve a galaxy-wide, pre-existent Internet and what’s learned from it. Through this, BLOODSTAR gets to a very interesting — and pretty scary — way of looking at aliens and humanity’s lonely and fragile place in our galaxy. Since Douglas’ vision of humanity’s future is a largely believable one, the threats hanging over Earth have a real and palpable weight to them.
The actual aliens we meet are also extremely alien, and they’re described to us by a character who knows biology. It seems that either Douglas really did his science homework, or he’s extremely good at making things sound believable, because the exobiology of these aliens really works to make them seem, well, alien. They also feel extremely dangerous … until our heroic Marines actually fight them.
I’m afraid that the otherworldly warrior culture of a horrifyingly powerful species does seem, at times, to crumble a bit too easily beneath the can-do attitude of our United States Marines. It isn’t that the heroes win the day easily (or necessarily at all, by the end), but the medic’s point of view is surprisingly detached from the death that must be going on around him.
We see enemy aliens killed all over the place, and we see the one or two injured Marines whom Carlyle tries to save, but there’s seldom any sense of larger casualties. It ends up seeming as though most skirmishes end with a bunch of dead aliens and one dead Marine, plus a few injuries that futuristic medical science will easily patch up. This lessens the story’s threat and overpowers the Marines, which doesn’t even feel particularly satisfying because none of them but Carlyle have all that much of a character.
In fact, one of my biggest problems with BLOODSTAR was that often the rest of the Marines in the book really do feel like a jumble of last names that I was very seldom able to put to faces, characteristics or even genders. It’s great that Carlyle is so used to a gender-inclusive version of the service that he doesn’t even think to point this kind of thing out, but it made it hard to care about most of the supporting characters. That this jumble of last names were pretty much entirely Anglo ones was also a little weird, and rather unbelievable for a future America.
But the strength of the supporting cast isn’t all that important, in the end. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but the fact is that BLOODSTAR is a book that’s almost entirely in its protagonist’s head. Carlyle isn’t just showing us the universe, he’s explaining every inch of it, reflecting on the evolution of sexual mores, talking about his dead wife (whose death is much more interesting than your average Hero’s Dead Wife), and reflecting on how technology does and doesn’t affect ideas like religion, God and a human soul.
All this and an ending that sets up a very interesting direction for many of these questions in later books. A reader’s appreciation of BLOODSTAR will depend on how high of a premium they put on exploration, a sense of adventure and an exceedingly well-fleshed-out world. These are the things that Douglas does very, very right.
A note: There was one thing about this book that made me extremely uncomfortable, but I am 99 percent sure it was unintentional. Basically, there’s a moon that, as a shortening of its official name, gets a nickname of Hymie, which is then used over and over again; the creatures found on this moon are called “Hymies,” colloquially. “Hymie” is a pretty old ethnic slur that has mostly fallen out of use, and I assume Douglas wasn’t aware of its connotations. But that didn’t stop it from bugging me every time I read it. —Elijah Kinch Spector