Six Against the Stars is a two volume space opera adventure by Stephen Hunt, whose work I have reviewed many times before. Six Against the Stars has an unlikely crew of adventurers thrown together against their will to try and prevent a rebellion in a far future stellar confederation. The main character is a useless rocker from Earth, whose only interests are bedding women and preserving his own skin but who has been tricked by circumstance into meddling with interstellar political affairs. The other characters include a strange book-shaped robot, a mass murdering martian who is a member of a weird orientalist death cult, a brain-enhanced academic, a kind of nice version of Novacks from Altered Carbon, and a spunky female clone assassin. The universe they adventure through is a recognizable cross between the universe of Firefly and the Culture, but the whole thing is imbued with Stephen Hunt’s consistent imagination for the slightly strange, the mystical and the chaotic. One of the alien races that vies with humans for control of the galaxy is a race of machines that slaughtered their makers; another race are centaur-like monsters; and at one point we are introduced to distant creatures that swim in gas giants, and were created by a mad king who aimed to forcibly re-engineer his entire population to be gas-living winged creatures. Earth is an isolationist clique of Gaiaists, who have redesigned their planet so that they never have to do any work – they just step outside and pluck medicines off a tree, and even their racing cars are sentient genetically-engineered animals. Just as in the Culture, ships are sentient AIs patterned on humans, and as is becoming increasingly common in many modern SF novels, sublimed races essentially equivalent to gods are commonplace in the universe.
It’s a fun galaxy to romp through, and the lead character is sufficiently open-minded and rumbunctious to be willing to take it all in and make the most of it. Hunt is also obviously having fun with the genre, playing around with silly and far-fetched ideas on many occasions and doing his best to make his galaxy fun enticing. To give a sense of the carnivalesque nature of his creation, I’d like to share a little section from one chapter, in which we learn the back story of a single, largely pointless character who is present for about three chapters of the entire two novels. This cyborg briefly shares a cell with our hero the bard, and has this story to tell about his origins on earth:
I was an officer in a war, a great war, although in the end I think I realised there was precious little greatness in it. Unfortunately for my future prospects, I discovered our war leader was receiving unholy advice from a terrible entity. With the prejudices of my age, I believed it to be a demon, though with hindsight I now believe it was a traveller from the future. When I investigated further, myself and a small group of army commanders uncovered a rival time traveller at work, a woman trying to oppose the madness worming its way through our society. We allied ourselves to her in an attempt to halt the war.
When asked whether they won, he tells our hero:
Hardly. We attempted to murder our leader, but to my shame we failed in the matter. The rival time traveller saved my life from a traitor’s death, if you can call what you see remaining before you saved. My family buried a corpse with no brain inside its skull, and I was secretly transported offworld on the ship of a species called the archivers. How the archivers had been bargained with by my time travelling ally, I do not claim to understand; they certainly made poor hosts. I lost everything that was dear to me when I was forced away from Earth: my son – my darling wife – my career and my name.
The finale of this conversation proceeds to the inevitable revelation of the cyborg’s name:
“We are brothers of Earth. You shall call me Erwin, my friend.”
“Erwin,” Horatio said the new name. “I think there is a world in the Stobb Clouds called Erwin’s Luck.”
“Perhaps,” said the cyborg.”But if so, it is not named in honour of my unhappy life. Never named after Erwin Rommel.”
So there you have it. A throwaway page of book 2 of the story, but it turns out that Hitler was a time traveller and Rommel spent the next 10 or so millenia trapped in a cyborg’s body, wandering the universe at the beck and call of a mysterious alien race known as the Archivers. Who knew?
I think for many people this carnivalesque style will be a disappointment – it certainly sets a very different tone to the gloomy seriousness of Iain M. Bank’s Against a Dark Background or the slightly over the top striving of Star Wars. But I enjoy the creativity and the playing with the genre – sci fi can be a tad too serious at times, and it’s nice to see space opera treated with a slightly lighter tone, without tripping over into Space Balls style puerility. It also has some really good ideas mixed in – for example, like everyone who writes space opera, Stephen Hunt has specific visions of hyperspace, and in this novel we’re treated to the Ebb, a strange area of the galaxy in which hyperspace travel slows down and becomes unpredictable – and where bandit civilizations flourish. He also has a fairly brutal conception of the colonization process, and some nice ideas about AIs and the relationship between human and machine which, though superficially sillier than Banks’s visions, are actually pretty cool.
As always, this novel falls down when we start to experience intervention by god-like creatures to help kick the plot along. I think I’ve read 6 or 8 Hunt novels now, and in all but two of them the plot has been dependent on divine intervention. I’m used to it and it often fits well within the story arc and the cultural framework, but it also leaves me with a slight feeling of disappointment. Fortunately his characters are excellent and his story-telling very pacy, as well as being thick with ideas, so it’s easy to overlook the Deus Ex Machina; but I do wish he would give it a miss occasionally. Otherwise I think that this might perhaps be his best work, though there’s a wide range of material to judge from and the comparisons are hard. But if you’re interested in a light-hearted space opera with cool characters, fast plot and a chaotic feeling, then this is the tale for you. And, once again, I would like to recommend Stephen Hunt’s entire corpus (or at least, everything I’ve read) to my reader(s). He is great!