Kevin D. Randle is well-known as a leading figure (and prolific author) in ufology: spearheading the search for answers at Roswell, examining the case history of other reported UFO crashes, asking tough (and sometimes unpopular) questions about the alien abduction phenomenon, and generally examining UFO evidence in as large a context as possible. I was surprised to discover his entry into the world of science fiction, but The Exploration Chronicles is proving to be an interesting series that differs wildly from my expectations. Signals, the first novel, suffered from a number of flaws, especially in terms of characterization, but maintained my interest as it explored Earth's first contact with an intelligent race of aliens. The ending was almost shockingly anticlimactic, and I figured Randle was saving his good stuff for the second novel. Now we would finally get a good look at these elusive aliens - or so I thought.
Randle surprised me, however, by taking an entirely new direction here in Starship; since his UFO research has dealt primarily with our reactions to contact with an alien intelligence, I expected that subject to be the continuing theme of this second novel. Instead, Randle has done the opposite and cast humans in the role of an alien race seeking a new home on a new planet. The heart of this novel lies in the social interaction and political continuity of life aboard the starship, and to my surprise Randle's exploration of social and psychological themes actually succeeds much better than his first novel's overreliance on science to the detriment of his characters. The writing in this book is a significant improvement over that found in Signals, and I am actually quite excited about the future of this series.
After a brief prologue featuring the two main characters from the original novel, Starship jumps more than two centuries into the future. The Starship Alpha, called Home by its thousands of residents, is well on its way into deep space in search of a planet suitable for colonization. The mission's main purpose is to ensure that, should disaster strike Earth, the human race would continue to survive. The original colonists are long dead, replaced by their descendants who were borne into a mission they may not have wanted; none of them has ever been outside the spaceship itself. Life onboard the ship is highly regulated and controlled; indeed, a futuristic breed of socialism keeps everything and everyone productively docile. The residents have been bred, with the aid of genetic engineering, to look and act alike for the most part; each person has his assigned role in the society and does it without complaint. Last names have even been dropped in favor of numbers indicating when each person was born in relation to the time of the ship's launch. Oh, a few individuals have doubts and question the facts they are given by the computers, and a few even exhibit troublesome behavior, but such problematic residents are dealt with by those in security or the medical facilities. Medication and special food additives are used to control the population and make them docile; those who cannot be controlled so easily simply disappear. Everyone is content and committed to the ideals of the mission, never knowing that their lack of individuality is an act of manipulation by those in authority over them.
The ship is still several decades away from its targeted New Home, but everything is about to change. Blight has been detected in one of the agricultural pods, and the authorities are soon horrified to learn that the damage to the food supply is more severe than first thought and, most shocking of all, it is apparently an act of sabotage. There is a conspiracy afoot that threatens to ruin the ship's mission and kill everyone on board. A new Home must be discovered in the coming months if the people are to survive. A suitable moon is found, but there are signs of intelligent life there already. With the social structure on board the ship quickly crumbling into anarchy, the ship's authorities may have to ignore their prohibitions against interfering in the lives of an existing alien race.
Individual interaction, social and political dealings, and the psychology of both man and society are explored rather deeply and impressively in Starship, as science takes a back seat in the storyline. I did not think the author had it in him to succeed at this aspect of storytelling, since it was a real weakness in the first book of the series, but Kevin D. Randle has really surprised and impressed me with this second novel. It's a remarkable turnaround that bodes very well indeed for The Exploration Chronicles.