It's easy to see why THE OUTBACK STARS by Sandra McDonald is a Nebula nominee. It's just plain good storytelling. Regular readers will know that I'm not usually given to superlatives, but THE OUTBACK STARS is a great science fiction novel. It has everything that I've come to expect of a space-faring science fiction novel, and each has their own twists.
- A milieu. All too often, science fiction novels are based on American culture. Not this one. Unsurprisingly, when you consider the title, it is based on Australian culture. There's no attempt to spell out dialog and no one says "good day, mate", but the "mates" are there along with an aboriginal mythology that borders on fantasy.
- A hero and a heroine. Instead of a studly officer and a hapless young female ensign, we have a female lieutenant and a male sergeant who fall in love. Both Jodenny and Myell start the novel from positions of weakness and grow in strength as they face their challenges. Anyone who has ever served in the military knows that fraternization between officers and enlisted ranks are strictly prohibited. Therefore, tension grows throughout the novel as they realize their feelings and struggle to set them aside. Forbidden love will always intrigue.
- Intrigue and secret schemes. So much is going on that even routine officer meetings are riveting. Bad guys turn out to be good guys, then turn out to be bad guys after all, or did they? Who is who they say they are, and who has some sort of secret function? Who belongs to secret organizations, and within these secret organizations, who is really in charge, the officer, or the enlisted guy? You get the idea.
- Comic relief. The way Jodenny handled her malingering (faking illness, to you civilians) subordinate just cracked me up. She promised him every medical test she could get him into, "no matter how arduous." He was aghast. It was hilarious.
- An alien mystery. Humanity has stumbled across the Alcheringa, a sort of an interstellar river that ships can use to travel between the stars. Who created the Alcheringa? We don't know, but it's damned useful, especially since Earth is suffering from a Debasement that makes it a right unpleasant place to live. The alien mystery is tied to Aboriginal culture and it deepens when Jodenny and Myell stumble across another alien transport system, this one unknown to the general public. It's neat the way it all fits together, but all is not revealed in the end.
- An animal sidekick. Not really a sidekick, but a gecko that is almost a live animal totem.
- Bad guys. There's one bad guy named Chiba that you just love to hate. He's a bully and he's up to no good and worse. But he's slippery as a greasy wrench in gloved hands. There's also all sorts of hidden bad guys along with, happily, hidden good guys.
- Multiple cultures. Those of you who disapprove of novels filled with an all-white cast of characters will be satisfied with this novel. Along with whites we have Muslims, Japanese, Aboriginals and the occasional American. And there are bad and good guys scattered among them all.
- Forgiveness. I don't want to give too much away, but I admired one scene about forgiveness in this novel. I didn't expect it, which made it even better.
- Self-sacrifice. One scene toward the end just made me fall in love with one of the characters. It was noble and heroic.
I thoroughly enjoyed THE OUTBACK STARS. It's a fun read steeped in military culture, but I don't think you will need to have served in the military to enjoy it. It's about ordinary people, not superheroes, and how they manage to be heroic after all. If you appreciate military science fiction suspense with just a dash of romance, then you will probably love it. If you've never tried reading such a novel, you might want to give it a try. I think you will find it highly accessible and a quick and entertaining read. I highly recommend it.