These days, every piece of art and entertainment needs an “elevator pitch” that concisely explains the fundamental feel of the work. The elevator pitch for Dave Bara’s Lightship Chronicles is almost irresistible: it’s Star Wars-meets–Star Trek, combining a classic story of imperial evil versus republican good with a James T. Kirk-style protagonist, packing in plenty of exploration, political maneuvering, and pitched space battles along the way.
In Impulse, Bara established a complicated universe set far in humanity’s future, after the establishment of a fledgling planetary union. Peter Cochrane is not only heir to the royal house of his home planet, Quantar (settled by an Australian corporation called Queensland and Northern Territories Amalgamated Resources, with the ultimate monarchical power on the planet still known by the title of “director”), but a rising officer in the Royal Navy, as well as the combined Union Navy. That first book introduced a complex universe while offering up plenty of adventure, both personal and military, as Cochrane investigated a disaster, explored unknown space, discovered a mysterious empire, and survived betrayal from within. In Starbound, Bara manages to ramp up the depth and complexity of his world while retaining that sense of excitement, suspense, and adventure.
Reveling in protocol
Where some science fiction universes hand-wave political structures and social orders, Bara gleefully dives into the complexities that would naturally come up in a galactic society where disparate planetary governments are bound by treaty. Cochrane is both the future ruler of Quantar and a lieutenant (and later, captain) in the Union Navy, which is staffed and funded mutually by the member planets. This leads to complex scenarios where the ranking authority in any given room shifts depending on the nature of the situation; the heir apparent of Quantar can issue orders one moment, then have to humbly take them the next. Things get even more complicated when Cochrane goes on a diplomatic mission to the planet Carinthia, whose unfriendly prince tries to establish the superior rank of his own family line.
Bara has an obvious love of history, both political and military, and infuses his story with layers of deeply-rendered detail on both counts, but he also doesn’t neglect the personal relationships. Cochrane’s love life is as complex as Captain Kirk’s ever was, and the book sees him in a relationship with a fellow officer as the story opens and married to a fellow royal by the end. Cochrane’s relationship with his mentor, the Historian Serosian (Historians being a secretive society of Earth humans who guard advanced technology, voluntarily helping the Union military but ultimately serving their own agenda) becomes twisty indeed after Cochrane, in the heat of a pitched space battle, makes ruthless decisions that the Historian cannot agree with. At every step of Bara’s surprising plot, the character relationship follow circuitous routes, but are perfectly logical in retrospect.
On top of that foundation of history, culture, and character, Bara layers a story of treason and betrayal. A power struggle on a Union world breaks into open warfare as one side seeks to ally with the Union’s greatest enemy, the Imperial Forces, and stage a massacre they can blame on Cochrane, justifying the break to the general populace. The pacing turns instantly breathless once the Lightships and Dreadnoughts square off and the space battles begin in earnest. Bara’s combat sequences are fantastic, a grand mix of more tactics and the sort of tricks favored by the more foolhardy captains of the Enterprise—think Wrath of Khan. The destruction is breathtaking, and the moral price the characters pay—at one point Cochrane has to contemplate a decision that kills thirty thousand people in one move—is affecting and emotional.
In the end, Starbound confirms what we suspected when Impulse hit the shelves: Bara has created one of the most thought-provoking visions of the far, far future we’ve seen lately, taking the best elements of military sci-fi, space opera, and good old-fashioned adventure stories, and fashioning them into something both familiar and unique.