The Second Star: Strong first half marred by final third

The Second Star by Alma Alexander science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Second Star by Alma Alexander science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Second Star by Alma Alexander

At one point while reading Alma Alexander’s The Second Star, I wrote a marginalia note hoping the book wasn’t going to go where I feared it might. Some chapters later, it turned out that was indeed our destination, and I have to confess I was sorely disappointed. That said, Alexander’s novel has an excellent, compelling premise and a quite strong first two-thirds, and I think the vast majority of readers will enjoy the book to that point. After that, one’s mileage will vary.

Two centuries ago, humanity sent out its first interstellar starship, the Parada, propelled by an experimental drive. When all communication was lost, the six crewmembers were assumed dead and that failure kept humanity safely close to home for hundreds of years, until recently, when a second attempt was made. Everyone assumes the second ship is still out there, but when psychologist Dr. Stella Froud agrees to be whisked off to a secret government installation, she learns that the second ship has not only returned, but brought back with it the Parada, and even more stunningly, the Parada’s crew (barely aged thanks to time dilation). Both crews have been quarantined and their return kept secret because the crew of the Parada returned changed. Because it is revealed in the novel’s publicity description (i.e. if you read the book’s summary at an online bookstore you’ll see it) and is also revealed quite early in the book, I’m going to say what happened to them. If you don’t want to know, stop here.

While the six crew members have returned alive, their minds have fractured into over 70 distinct personalities amongst them. Froud, along with a Jesuit — Philip Cart — a medical doctor, and others, is tasked with finding out how and why this mental split happened, if it is contagious and/or dangerous, and if it can be reversed. Her findings will not only determine if both sets of crews can rejoin humanity, but also if humanity itself is forever barred from the stars.

I absolutely loved this premise and found Froud and Cart’s work with the Parada crew to be fascinating and compelling. The overarching mystery of the ailment is captivating enough, but there are also some sub-mysteries within it that are equally intriguing. I also like how Alexander gives us a situation where the stakes are both movingly personal — will these people ever be able to rejoin society, ever be able to find their way back to themselves — and also societally far-reaching and broad — if this seeming madness was caused by the star drive, then humanity is forever tied to its own backyard.

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander

Beyond that, there is some nice tension between the humanists Froud and Cart on one hand, and the government/military on the other. While this could have fallen into clichéd territory, for the most part Alexander avoids that by giving us a more complex characterization of the captain in charge of the project. And the revelation of the cause was a nice move that I thought opened up the story nicely.

If we had stayed in the underground bunker/lab/prison, I would have been completely happy. Unfortunately, the book moves from a psychological, character-driven mystery with a potentially rich science fiction revelation mixed in toward a more action-oriented story with a hefty dollop of religion (which had always been there, but ratchets up greatly). Here is where I thought both story and craft started to decline. The action parts relied on some implausible plot events, and honestly, the chase scenes were far less interesting to me than the personal stories. And the religious aspect was the prediction I feared, though I won’t say any more about that to avoid spoilers. I’m not against religion in science fiction per se (I think The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is fantastic); I just thought it wasn’t executed well here.

So as noted in the intro, an excellent read (with a few minor issues) for most of the book, followed by a veer into territory that for me, made the book drop off considerably in enjoyment, but which other readers may find less problematic. I’d say it’s worth the attempt for the book’s beginning. I’ve given the book a three as a rating, but here is where ratings’ reductionism rears up. To be more precise, I’d give the first half to two-thirds a four, and the final part a two. Make of that math what you will …

Published in July 2020. The Parada had been lost for almost two hundred years before they recovered the ship, drifting in stygian interstellar darkness, and brought her home again. But that was not the miracle. The miracle was that the crew was still alive. That was also the problem. Six crew members went out on the Parada, Earth’s first starship. All contact was lost, and the ship vanished for almost two centuries. When the Parada’s successor found the drifting ship and somehow managed to bring it home, the six crew members were not only still alive but barely older, due to the time dilation effects of near-FTL travel. Their return was a miracle – but it could not be revealed to the waiting world. The problem was, six individuals went out to the stars. More than seventy fractured personalities came back. Psychologist Stella Froud and Jesuit Father Philip Carter were recruited as part of the team assembled to investigate the mystery, and to try and help the Parada’s crew understand their condition and possibly reverse it. What they discovered was a deepening mystery, and very soon they found themselves forced to take sides in a conflict that nobody could have possibly predicted. Their world would never be the same again.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting premise!

  2. I had similar problems with the last third, but I had issues with the whole of the book too. Mainly that the technology of 200+ years in the future was far too similar to today’s, and then, to compound that, much was made of the idea that highly educated astronauts from 200 years before wouldn’t be able to cope in this world because it was so changed.

    That might have been referring more to the climate-change changes than the (as far as I could tell, almost non-existent) technological changes, but even so – highly educated astronauts. Better prepared than probably anyone for encountering something new and coping with it.

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