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The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsGeneration ships have been a popular science fiction trope for a long time, but would you really want to live on one? To spend your entire life in the confines of a single vessel, never knowing anyone outside your crew? Never knowing if your descendants will make it to your ultimate destination, let alone establish a successful and thriving colony?

If Ness Brown does anything with indisputable success in her debut short novel, The Scourge Between Stars, she will cure you of any romantic notions you may have about venturing into deep space aboard a generation ship. When we meet the crew of the Calypso, we know they’re already pretty much doomed. The Calypso is part of a massive flotilla of generation ships fleeing a climate-ravaged Earth for the promise of a fresh start in a colony on Proxima B. But the colony has proven to be a complete failure. Now the ships are limping back to a home they know is also unlivable.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, someone or something has been attacking them. The ship has taken severe damage from what the crew calls “engagements”: sudden, random barrages that impact the vessel without warning. No one knows where they come from. No one even knows if they are intentionally targeting the Calypso, or if the ship has just haplessly blundered into the middle of somebody else’s interstellar war. But lives have been lost, food stores are depleting too rapidly, and morale is close to rock bottom, on the verge of full mutiny.

All of this, naturally, is weighing heavily on Jacklyn Albright, the Calypso’s acting captain. Her father, the actual captain, has locked himself in his quarters and hasn’t come out or made any attempt to communicate with Jack or anyone else in the crew for a solid week. Ness Brown roots her story in Jack’s character, who is so convincingly written that the sympathy we feel for her, and by extension the ship, helps to smooth over the story’s over-reliance on ideas recycled from the Alien film franchise. Jacklyn is exhausted, grieving both a lost sister and mother, angry with her father’s dereliction of duty, nearly overwhelmed with imposter syndrome in trying to fill his role, yet always, always doing her absolute best to project authority and confidence towards a crew in need of strong leadership. It’s a tribute to Brown’s skill at character development that nothing about Jack feels forced or contrived, that every emotion feels genuine.

Bombarded by unknown alien hostiles, not enough food to last the crew of 6,000 for the trip home, people splitting into factions and rioting — could anything get worse? Of course it could. Now it looks like the Calypso picked up some stowaways before leaving Proxima, and several hungry xenomorphs have been hiding out deep in the lower decks and crawling around inside the bulkheads. And now, they’re coming out, mercilessly savaging the crew. Contact with other ships has been completely lost except for scattered, panicked transmissions, making it horrifyingly clear the entire fleet is infested, and that no one is a match for these beasts.

Yeah, it’s all kind of an Alien redux from here on in. But Brown knows what she’s all about, and honestly, if I can’t begrudge multiple generations of epic fantasy writers taking cues from Tolkien, I’m certainly not going to hold it against the author of a “monsters on my spaceship” story for wanting to recreate the visceral thrills of the most popular space monster stories of our age. We see a lot here that’s familiar to us from the Alien universe: there’s the sketchy android whom we cannot initially be certain is friend or foe; there’s the one crewman who’s gone nuts and thinks the monsters are a good thing; there’s a fantastically executed scene in which Jack and a heavily armed security detail venture into darkened decks to seal them off and flush the monsters out. We’ve seen it before, but Ness Brown still gives all of it solid entertainment value.

Less commendable is the choice Brown makes — and I’ll try to spoil as little as I can here — in the denouement, which takes a major plot element and turns it into a deus ex machina that lets her cheat the science to save the day. I won’t deny that I sincerely felt these characters, after everything they endure in this book’s 160 pages, earned their happy ending. But what we get feels far too convenient; indeed, a solution that could have been figured out early in the story rather than at the desperate end. Nevertheless, if all you’re in the mood for is some enjoyably diverting deep space action-horror, The Scourge Between Stars might just be the thing to grab you in its claws.