The Wrong Stars is space opera, but it’s all about the people. Rather than fill his series-starter with loads of exposition about the workings and state of his universe, chameleonic genre author Tim Pratt focuses on how his characters live and interact with each other within it, building worlds through his characters, their alien antagonists, with dialogue and offhand comments. When paired with the immense cultural diversity on display—the humans and aliens exhibit multiple religions and customs, and even operate by different sets of laws—the result is a work every bit as vast as you expect from space operas, but with a character-focused touch that keeps the action feeling intimate.
On a routine mission, Captain Kalea “Callie” Machedo and the borderline-shady crew of the salvage vessel White Raven find a “Goldilocks ship”—an undisturbed generation ship from 500 years in Earth’s past. Looking for parts from this priceless relic of a bygone era to strip and sell for a profit, Callie stumbles upon two things: a perfectly preserved scientist still in suspended animation within a cryo-pod, and a strange wormhole-generating black box patched into the ship’s propulsion system. When the cryo-pod’s inhabitant, Doctor Elena Oh, wakes up, she warns the crew of immanent first contact with sapient life…only to be told that humanity actually made contact with a race of body-modifying octopus traders known as “Liars” three centuries earlier. But Elena’s descriptions don’t match that of the Liars, and when an indescrible something begins following the White Raven, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake—along with a single clue: the name “Axiom”—the crew realizes what Elena’s brought them might be something far older and and far more alien, something that has been waiting for the right time to wake up.
That compelling mystery aside, more than anything, The Wrong Stars displays Pratt’s gift for dialogue. The banter between the White Raven crew is a language unto itself, rife with in-jokes (the ship’s AI is nicknamed “Shall” for reasons none of them will ever speak of), good-natured ribbing, and cutting humor. The rapid-fire back-and-forth gives the impression the ship is a close-knit family, a group that has been through the wringer together, time and again. The humor hides subtle elements of worldbuilding, too—offhand comments about ship’s XO Stephen’s “religious ceremony” (which involves taking a ton of psychedelic drugs), the way the alien Liars used famous science fiction novels to play on the sympathies of human governments (watch for a particularly clever Peter F. Hamilton reference), and the snarky comments Captain Callie tosses at her chief engineer, Ashok, about his cyborg body modifications all help build an idea not just of who these people are, but how the universe around them operates.
To Tim Pratt’s credit, this universe is vast, diverse place, and benefits from the added color. Rather than a mono-cultured alien race, the Liars are split into thousands of factions, only identifiable by their accoutrements and the variety of lies they tell, all with their own conflicts and structural issues. It’s a unspoken correction to a few common issues in space opera: why, exactly, do all planets except Earth so often seem to have one homogenous culture? Why do all aliens seem to be either benevolent uplifters or tyrannical oppressors? (The Liars are both, and also neither).
Not to be outdone by their cephalopod counterparts, the humans display just as diverse a culture, from religious sects like the Church of the Ecstatic Divine, a group who believes they can commune with higher powers via a handful of designer hallucinogenics taken during a festival; to the body-modification addicts even cyberpunks would find extreme; to the fact that there is one solar system out of 29 human-controlled systems (all connected through wormhole bridges) that no one can ever seem to contact, as its inhabitants favor isolationism and respond violently to attempts at contact from the outside world. The closest thing The Wrong Stars has to a mono-culture turns out to be that of its villains, a shadowy group who believe all the universe is theirs for the subjugating—a motivation that only further drives home how important diversity and individuality are in this vision of the future.
Through his wit, dialogue, and vast, varied cast, Tim Pratt has created a space opera for today—one filled with diverse characters and cultures that feel nuanced enough to be real—while still delivering the sense of wonder that made you love the genre in the first place. It yanks readers through the wormhole and refuses to let them go. When’s the sequel out?