***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
I listened to the audiobook of Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt, mostly to stretch myself: I've never read commercial adult sci-fi. It was a reasonably fun use of my audio time, but I don't think I'll go on in the Priscilla Hutchins oeuvre (this is the prequel in The Academy series).
If I don't write a few words about a book after I've read it, I completely forget what happened. So don't mind me while I jot notes to remind future-Lizzie-Bennet what it's about.
This novel takes place in the future, just after space technology has achieved faster-than-light travel, but before we've gotten terribly good at it or figured out how we want to use it. Priscilla is a young pilot eager to become licensed and find work as an interstellar captain. We see her pass her qualifying test with her instructor/mentor Jake. The test is truncated somewhat by a real emergency, which Jake and Priscilla respond to.
Or perhaps there are two emergencies: the first is that they discover the failed voyage of a wealthy celebrity and his wreckage on a planet that appears to be living. This introduction to a form of life that was previously unimagined sets up the theme of human devaluation of (i.e. lack of respect for) alien lifeforms that comes later in the book. Jake and Priscilla are assigned to return with a scientific group to explore the planet, and are thwarted by the planet's treatment of them--designed to be a clear message warning them off. There's some musing on what sort of intelligent life could stand to be alone for hundreds of thousands of years. But everyone on the mission realizes that it's such an unexpected form of life, they really can't comprehend its consciousness in human terms.
The second emergency is a group of school girls on a tourism trip to see a famous alien sculpture. Their ship has been outfitted with a bomb planted by an activist group that disapproves of colonization of other planets, and the associated "terraforming" that necessarily destroys indigenous life forms. (Aside: the narrative is peppered with first-person journal entries of Priscilla--along with some news reports and blog posts, the latter sort of hilariously including comments from Internet trolls--and Priscilla makes the insightful comment that old movies used to show hostile aliens invading earth to kill us and take over our resources, but in fact we have become the hostile aliens.)
In the second emergency, Jake tacitly allows the captain of the school girls' ship to sacrifice his own life to save everyone else (basically because there isn't enough life support to go around). This decision plagues Jake, who believes he himself should have volunteered to die, given that he's unmarried with no children. Jake retires, feeling personally shamed, irrevocably disappointed in himself. In his retirement he meets a younger woman at a bar whom he gradually falls in love with.
Priscilla has trouble finding a job after she quits her first place of employment over irreconcilable differences (she refuses to run supplies to terraforming missions). In her second job, she behaves subversively by trying to take off on a rescue mission without permission. Jake mentors her by phone through these tough times, and she begins dating an actor (whom I gather becomes her solid love interest later in the series). Ultimately, Jake is pulled out of retirement to head a mission with Priscilla, who is deemed too green to handle it alone. I'm forgetting the mission, but the upshot is, Jake decides that he will stay aboard when the ship is used as a bomb to detonate a dangerous target (or move it aside with an impact?). I recall that it seemed totally unnecessary for him to stay aboard--there was a contingency plan that would have worked fine--but he stubbornly stays to remedy the mistake he made on the school girl ship. I found this to be too similar to suicide and too dissimilar from heroic behavior, which was an unfitting end for a co-protagonist we had come to care about. I was left to presume that Jake was simply an elaborate Red Shirt: he doesn't appear in later books, so McDevitt invented him to kill him off. Priscilla eventually visits Jake's girlfriend to deliver a message to her: that he loved her and wanted to get back together with her.
I also thought that Priscilla and Jake felt somewhat distant as characters. McDevitt cares about action and politics, but paints on characterization rather than feeling the personalities from the inside out. Note that Priscilla was not clearly the main character in this book, since Jake is the one who grappled with more emotional growth. They were co-main-characters as far as I could tell.
There's some meandering in the plot. Some meetings with politicians, and meetings in bosses' offices, and visits with Priscilla's mom, and shuttle rides back and forth, and dinners out with old boyfriends, and fretting from her mom...ho hum.
In terms of writing, there are approximately one million, "Okays" in this book. Too many lines of dialogue began with that word. And similarly, the characters say each other's names in almost every sentence. I think this is McDevitt's tic: whenever he doesn't want to repeat "he said" or "she said" he has the characters say each other's names so that we know who's talking. But he does it endlessly. It's not until you hear the names repeated over and over again in audio that you realize just how unnatural this is in dialogue.
There were some quite cool things about Starhawk: you know how the first Star Wars, Episode 4, was beautifully grungy? It looked like everything was real—everything was depreciating before your eyes, everything had a worn patina. Starhawk feels the same way--for example, the Wheel is an enormous, spinning (to create gravity) space station city--but also there's a sort of cultural and political grunge. It all feels real—definitely like our future. I also liked the way the story takes place at a kind of transition point in human technology, when we’ve just developed faster-than-light-speed travel, but we haven’t mastered it. On a rescue mission, Priscilla would make the jump to a new system, but could still be days or weeks away from her target, depending on where she landed. The ship has to sort of "steam" the rest of the way, and the remaining distance is all based on chance. It makes urgent missions a crap shoot.That feels real to me. It feels like the evolution of a technology.
I also loved the artificial intelligence computers that run the ships and even the utility systems in households (the AI in Priscilla's childhood home is named George). The AI's each had first names, and personalities that were somewhat programmable but occasionally too strong to tweak exactly the way you'd like. As I recall, Priscilla is stuck at one point with one that's a bit too assertive.