Fiction Reviews

The Well of Stars

(2004) Robert Reed, Orbit, 6.99, pbk, 474 pp, ISBN 1-841-49256-6


This is the sequel to Marrow about the alien, world-sized, intergalactic space craft that is home to numerous visiting species including the humans who now control it. Being a roaming world-sized craft is reminiscent of Leiber's The Wanderer and its human stowaway commanders make the book evocative of Brunner's A Maze of Stars. (Perhaps Reed's title is a nod to this last?) Though a sequel, fortunately The Well of Stars can be read by itself due to introductory, as well as occasional other, narration from the ship's AI, so if you have not read Marrow (which I hadn't) do not be put off. Anyway, the humans are now in charge and gallivanting around the Galaxy. On the way they bump into things (sometimes literally) and have the odd encounter. Much of the story concerns entering a nebula within which is a world with a mysterious intelligence that has touched other beings in nearby systems. The story's lead protagonist is Washen, one of the ship's captains, which means we get to be where all the action and decision-making takes place, and as such this is standard fare. However The Well of Stars is a space opera with a sense of vision among the grandest this SF sub-genre has to offer. The plot is not challenging (unfortunately typical of much space opera) and somewhat episodic, reminiscent of old pulp series or present day programmes like Star Trek but with a solid story arc (Bab' V?). What carries it for me is the human characters so matter-of-factly having to deal with events and scenarios in which they are somewhat out of their depth. Yet cope they do and the story rattles along at a respectable pace. Reed certainly delivers a page-turner.

The Well of Stars brings little new to SF in terms of overall grand vision but it is a well crafted assemblage of tropes with some novel nuggets. Importantly, what little that is new is excellent and, while the casual reader may get off on the story, these nuggets of excellence should make it for seasoned hard SF enthusiasts. I particularly liked the whale-like creatures of a gas giant's moon who come together emitting radio waves to sing to the gas giant's own, natural, electromagnetic radio broadcast as these marine aliens think the gas giant is a god speaking to them. Marvellous stuff.

Tony, in our previous review of Marrow, bemoaned the publishers' reference to Reed's other works without saying what they are or who he is. So here is the summary gen. Robert Reed is a US writer (with a low European profile) who has been publishing the short stories only since the mid-1980s and currently has several out a year. Indeed his novel Marrow builds upon one of his novellas. I am not a huge fan of shorts, unless they are collections of a particular author, style or specific theme in whom or which I have an interest. However I have come across a couple of Reed's shorts. Coelacanth was truly dazzling, far more so, I feel than The Well of Stars so maybe he is more practiced in the short form? (Or maybe shorts enable his nuggets to shine?) 555 appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction and is a charming little cyberspace tale. Reed's SF that I have encountered is hard. Some of his shorts have been collected as The Dragons of Springplace and he has written over half a dozen novels including The Hormone Jungle (1988), Down the Bright Way (1991). The Remarkables (1992) and of course Marrow (2001). His earlier novels have not spawned sequels which makes him an interesting writer. Maybe it is because he has covered a range of stories that he now feels he wishes to build on past financially rewarding works? Unfortunately, not having yet read Marrow I am unable to say whether The Well of Stars as a sequel is a significant advancement or more of the same. Who cares, with this follow-up either way the reader is a winner.

The Well of Stars may not end up a classic but it is certainly a solid contribution to space opera and light years ahead of much of the crap on the market. Robert Reed is most definitely worth keeping an eye on and I am certainly glad that Orbit have chosen to air him this side of the Pond.

Jonathan Cowie

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