In a genre of well-mined tropes and clichés (many of them very well done it should be noted), it can be hard to find a truly original story in science fiction.
But Ren Hutchings, author of Under Fortunate Stars, has managed it with impressive original and vivacious imagination, delivering one of the best sci-fi novels to come along in some time.
While it’s true that the novel pivots around time travel, a tried-and-true element of sci-fi narratives, it uses it in such a creatively clever way and all while connecting multiple dots and tying up sundry threads, that you never once feel like you have read anything like it before.
Suffused with an enthusiastic earnestness and love for history and the way in which historical record owes as much to subjective interpretation as it does to actual facts on the ground (or in the stars as the case may be), if not more so, Under Fortunate Stars builds an amazingly intense and endlessly storytelling whose full speed ahead momentum still allows for a god many shiningly intimate character moments.
That is perhaps it’s greatest achievement.
In a story that stands on the top one action-oriented moment after the other, where tension is omnipresent and a thousand pieces feel like they need to fall into place for a great big ruinous twist in the passage of time to be avoided, Under Fortunate Stars really allows its characters the time they need to find their feet, to grow towards each other and for that connection to really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Uma glanced back towards the Jonah crew ], who were all looking at them curiously. ‘This is too strange to be a coincidence. It’s all connected somehow,’ she said. ‘The engine problem, the Rift, that distress call … it’s all linked. And we need to figure out how if we want to get out of here.’
No matter how much is going on, and there’s a lot as you’d expect in a story of this novel’s timey-wimey complexity, the characters are always heard and always play a key role in what happens next.
And what happens next is wholly dependent on whether the two ships caught in a weird anomalous rift in space, one named the Jonah which has seen far better days and which possesses a ragtag crew, and the other a giant modern corporate vessel called the Gallion with a stripped-down roster of personnel, have to work together to save a future that’s now in serious jeopardy.
The kicker in all this?
The Jonah is from the here and now while the Gallion is a whopping 152 years into the future; somehow the two ships, which come from quite different realities and times, have ended up together and while they may have had no connection prior to this, they are now necessary ingredients in each other’s survival and that of the entire human race.
For it turns out that the Jonah is the ship upon which the legendary and highly venerated Fortunate Five flew to Etraxas, capital of the human union of worlds, to broker a peace between the aggressive Felen and humanity who is not long away from folding in the face of a war that has been going on for decades.
If the Fortunate Five don’t go to their rendezvous with destiny as scheduled, there’s a good chance, no pretty much a guaranteed certainty, that the peaceful cooperative future from which the Gallion hails, where humanity and the Felen worked in wondrous, mutually supportive unity, simply won’t exist.
One of the key people charged with making this happen is the chief engineer of the Gallion, Uma Ozakka, a Fortunate Five junkie whose whole life has revolved around the mythology and suspect facts surrounding the Fortunate Five, with her father running a museum in their honour and much of her downtime devoted to finding out all she can about the people who save humanity from oblivion.
Uma is a sterling example of why Under Fortunate Stars works so damn well.
She is bright, vivacious, enthusiastic but also heartfelt and grief-stricken, a fully-rounded human being who like the captain of the Jonah, Jereth Keeven, his best friend and maths genius Eldric Leesongronski or the Gallion‘s Shaan, a woman with a complicated past whose finds her future changes far beyond anything she expected.
The time and care taken by Hutchings with her characters throughout the novel enriches an already intoxicatingly clever and meaningful story which transforms the good old time travel conundrum of will the actions of those in the past, which may differ from what is historically known, have any tangible effect on those in the future and remakes into something so heart-affectingly human that it transcends the action-oriented bounds of its narrative to become something quite profoundly moving.
‘Well, I can tell you what I’m thinking about right now,’ he [Leesongronski] said. ‘I’m thinking … you’re telling me this is a vintage bottle, and it sure does taste like a well-aged agnathe, but that year on the label is next year.’ He paused. ‘ Tomorrow, Jereth’s gonna fly out into that void, in a shuttle using experimental shield mods, moving through a form of energy none of us have seen before. I’m going to hack a space station that shouldn’t be here, to get Charyne access to a drive she hasn’t invented yet, so that she can turn it into a superweapon she has already invented … and here we are, sitting on a ship from the future, having this conversation … drinking this drink.’
With a highly perceptive eye on how history is less fixed than malleable, owing a great deal to who says what to whom and what historians are liable to believe, Under Fortunate Stars works as an almost mischievous commentary on how real people can end up becoming objects of hagiography as time goes remorselessly on.
What blows Uma’s mind and that of many of the people on the Gallion‘s crew, who have benefited from the selfless actions of those on the Jonah who, in turn, owe a great deal to those who come to their aid from the future, is how real the Fortunate Five are when they are real and in the flesh before them.
It makes you wonder just how we might view a great deal of history if we could just meet the actual people who made it, rather than simply see them as they are through the prism of myth and legend.
Under Fortunate Stars also has some fun, with witty dialogue and wry observation aplenty, with what happens when events that are expected to go one way, simply don’t; do you panic and worry about what the effects will be or do you simply accept that the best has been done and all you can is hope history, whatever it is in actuality, will happily repeat itself?
There’s a bit of both in this thrillingly warm and thoughtful puzzle-piece of a novel, which infuses a dark and dangerous situation with lots of wonder, hope and excitement at being involved in something far bigger than itself, rendering Under Fortunate Stars as one of those rare books that is both full-on action and intimate emotionality, rich with humour and meaning and characters who pop off the page and into your heart, and a sense that whether it’s in the past, present or future, we need each other, we need to see beyond the obvious and we need to always be open to the fact that life rarely plays out the way we think it’s going to.