Review: 'All Alone in the Night', by M. Andrew Rudder
This is generally well-written, if poorly proofread. But the science/technology seems wonky. And the main character, Dr. Cooper Barnes, M.D., the civilian Chief Medical Officer of the International Space Program’s ISP Frontier in 2065, is surprisingly negatively introduced. Most novels with a medical protagonist state their long-range goal of eliminating disease and putting themselves out of business. Cooper complains on the first page that the last serious disease, ebola, has just been eliminated, and he is out of a job. When he is asked to become the head doctor on an exploration spaceship that will land on new planets with unknown diseases, he asks for medical supplies and trained assistants that are presented as arrogant demands rather than requests.
No one had come to see him in the last few weeks, except for those particularly stupid people convinced that they were sick, and just needed a doctor to tell them that they weren’t. (p. 1)
You can guess that Cooper does not have a good bedside manner.
Novels that feature unpleasant main characters that gradually become likeable are hard but not impossible to bring off successfully. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Unfortunately, M. Andrew Rudder is no Charles Dickens. You have to take it on faith, and the reviewer’s promise, that Cooper Barnes will become a better man.
After a beginning like this, it is a surprise to learn that Cooper does have friends. The closest is a member of the only aliens that Earth has discovered so far.
There was a picture of Sykk [last name: Wikian] filling part of the page. He was a Qinan, from a small planet about forty light-years from Earth, and the best way Cooper could describe him was as a white fox who walked on two legs. He had the large tail, pointed ears, and inquisitive eyes of the Earth animal, and weirdly, Sykk had picked up an arctic fox as a pet. The resemblance amused the trauma specialist. The Qinans had arrived on Earth almost twenty years ago. (p. 4)
Cooper is semi-resigned to becoming a general doctor aboard an exploration starship instead of a medical specialist on Earth. At least it keeps him employed in the medical profession. But it’s not what he expects. Cooper has been proud of being ignorant of anything not related to medicine, and his detailed tour of the newly-built Frontier, with the latest in both human and Qinan technology, will fascinate all techno-geek readers.
Earth’s first line of large interstellar ships floated around the two of them [Cooper and Sykk], with faster-than-light engines that Cooper didn’t really understand. The only things he needed to worry about were in the medical bay. It wasn’t like he knew how a car worked either. (p. 6)
All Earth is excited about the mission of the ISP Frontier, which is the first starship to have a mixed human-Qinan crew, built with Qinan f-t-l technology since Earth had not developed a faster-than-light drive before the Qinans arrived.
‘We’re ready to launch, captain’, someone at one of the stations said. He figured the ship had a pilot, since a computer couldn’t do everything. Why did everyone here but Faer look like they had stepped right out of a military regiment? He’d been told this was a mixed vessel of civilian and military personnel. pgs. 17-18
‘This is Chief Diplomatic Officer Sara Patil,’ he [Captain Abdel] said, gesturing to a woman at his left. She was of Indian descent, and like him, she kept her hair long. ‘She is here representing the Armstrong Lunar Colony.’ Good to know that non-Earth humans were also being included, Cooper thought. She was smiling, but whether or not because of the cameras or out of actual excitement to be here, he didn’t know.
‘This is Chief Science Officer Hughes Larson,’ the captain continued, gesturing to a slightly chubby man on his left. ‘He is here on loan from the University of Cambridge.’ Cooper tried not to stare. Bionic implants were getting more and more common, but he still wasn’t really used to seeing someone with mechanical eyes. He knew they didn’t make a sound when he watched them focus, but his mind still implanted a whir. There were various scars criss-crossing on Larson’s face, some more prominent than others, so he assumed they were from a war injury. (p. 19)
Cooper’s shipmates are introduced in colorful detail that also smoothly expands the depiction of this futuristic technology. In fact, the tech-talk goes on for so long that it raises some questions.
‘Alright, everyone back to stations,’ the captain said, his tone changing back to all business. ‘I want us out of the solar system within the hour.’
Cooper felt the ship’s gravity shift a little as the clamps and airlocks connecting the Frontier to the International Space Program Station disconnected. Now they were completely self-contained, and when one of the crewmembers pulled up the external cameras, he watched as they slowly propelled away from Earth. (p. 20)
The cameras make sense for broadcasting while the Frontier is in Earth orbit, but once the f-t-l engines are turned on and they are “out of the solar system in an hour”, what can the cameras be used for except viewing their immediate vicinity when they reach a new planet? Recording what they encounter on their voyage for playback when they return to Earth? Otherwise it seems wasteful to install the fancy cameras for just the publicity broadcast of the Frontier’s launching.
Those [bacteria on newly-discovered planets] that the computer said would react to any of the species on ship were immediately subjected to a battery of testing to find something to combat them. Those that couldn’t be immediately dealt with were recorded, placed in a secure area, and the data was sent to Earth and the other ships out here for feedback. He [Cooper] couldn’t really expect answers immediately, so they just kept working. (p. 26)
I would hope not. There is a big difference between f-t-l travel and f-t-l communication. All Alone in the Night does not mention f-t-l communication between the exploration starships or between any of them and Earth. How do the starships with f-t-l engines communicate with Earth, and each other? For all the flashy futuristic technology in the background, I could not help thinking of the notorious line in the first Star Wars movie when Han Solo boasts to Obi-Wan Kenobi that he made the Kessel Run in only twelve parsecs.
They should pass by the ISP Auriga in about three weeks, if both ships kept to their expected schedules. It would be nice to swap data, since he didn’t think ships’ projected paths overlapped that much. (p. 43)
That pretty much confirms that there is no f-t-l communications. The starships have to meet physically to exchange messages. So how is data sent back to Earth without it taking tens of thousands of years to arrive?
‘Why’d they go down to a planet without environmental suits on?’ Sykk asked.
‘I’m betting,’ Cooper said, taking a seat while he could, ‘that Larson just looked at the atmospheric readouts and went, ‘oh look, oxygen! We’ll be fine!’
‘If they’d been there longer than an hour, they’d be dead.’ There was a small green flash in the corner of the monitor. Before he could change the display, Helmsman Richards’s face appeared on the largest screen. He was in his mid-twenties, and for some reason had blue hair. Cooper supposed once you reached a certain professional level in any field, people stopped commenting on your personal life.
‘This is a first contact situation. All personnel on Level Two alert.’ (p. 30)
What was the expedition’s training (excluding the medical personnel)? Watching all the original Star Trek episodes?
As a doctor, Cooper had to recommend everyone exercise regularly, stop smoking, drink lightly, and avoid anything else that might jeopardize their ability to perform their duties on ship. (p. 37)
Is the Frontier an exploration starship or an officers’ club? If the Chief Medical Officer recommends against all smoking, why isn’t smoking banned altogether?
All Alone in the Night moves briskly, but with a casualness and a reckless naïveté. I may be obsessing on scientific-technical minutiae that do not really affect the plot, but considering the emphasis on how "scientific" everything looks, they spoil the s-f illusion for me. All Alone in the Night works best if you read it like a Star Trek novel and don’t worry about the astrophysical details.
A similar disappointment to me is that the Qinans – indeed, all the new aliens that the humans meet in the first pages, such as the human-looking plant-men of Scerisa -- are cosmetic aliens only. Sykk likes to watch old Earth movies while snacking on large tubs of heavily buttered popcorn. Kirano Faer, the Qinan Communications Officer, talks idiomatic English sprinkled with curses in English, French, and Arabic besides Qinan swear words. Despite their anthropomorphic white fox appearance, with their fluffy fur, wagging tails and twitching ears, the Qinans act so human that nobody is surprised that Cooper and Sykk are openly homosexual lovers, as the excellent cover by Soro shows.
Rudder depicts their relationship with admirable discretion, but it just emphasizes how much Qinans are like humans despite their superficial physical differences. When truly alien-looking aliens are finally introduced…
The Monterans reminded him of iridescent armadillos. Beautiful colors glittered all over their shells, even in the low light of the re-pressurized docking bay. They might be quadrupeds, but Cooper could almost lock eyes with the one in front of him – each of the half-dozen aliens was the size of a pony. The one directly in front of him spoke into a headset, high-pitched chitters translating into English. (pgs. 91-92)
…they still act just like humans. Again, this is standard for Star Trek-level s-f, where all aliens, no matter how exotic they look, have to be human actors in makeup and costumes. This may be unimaginative, but there is a lot of it.
Neither the science, the medicine, nor the technology are the main focus of All Alone in the Night. Each alien species that the Frontier meets has some medical emergency (some very bizarre) that Cooper solves almost immediately. As a result, the aliens want to deal only with Cooper or the Frontier’s medical personnel, which increasingly irritates Captain Abdel and the Frontier’s non-medical staff. Cooper finally realizes that the ISP, which has been growing increasingly bureaucratic and militaristic in his opinion, has been planning to take the leading position in diplomatic negotiations with all alien species that they meet; and an outright military posture with any aliens that look like they could stand up to the ISP. Cooper’s helpful non political/bureaucratic attitude is giving the aliens an alternative with which to deal.
Cooper, who is not interested in anything except medical matters, suddenly finds himself the de facto representative of humanity to an expanding portion of the galaxy. Whether he likes it or not, Cooper has to spend more time in first-contact ceremonies representing Earth, being extra-cautious to avoid doing anything that might be considered as insulting or hostile by the unknown aliens. When military disaster eventually happens offstage, it is up to Cooper to recommend whether Earth should mobilize on its own, discarding its tentative relations with apparently-friendly aliens; or form a defensive alliance with those aliens, even though one may be a disguised aggressor – despite being way out of his depth. Everyone is counting on him, and Cooper feels All Alone in the Night.
All Alone in the Night is a fast-paced, simplistic but colorful s-f novel, with a human protagonist and many different-looking but human-acting aliens in the background. I can live with most of the obvious proofing errors, and Rudder’s constant ignorance of singular/plural pronoun agreement (“…a person was only isolated if they wanted to be.” – p. 59), but is Sykk’s homeworld Qina or Qinan? On page 12, it says both, “The walls were covered in photographs, both of Qina and Earth.”, and, “ … except for one on a glacier on Qina, with him in a fur-lined coat being miserable but smiling all the same.” But on page 14, it says, “… wasn’t that kind of the point of Qinan having an embassy?” Which is correct?
The novel ends with a setup for a sequel. Yeah, despite my whining, I'll look forward to it.