The Pilots of Borealis
By David Nabham
I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher, via Edelweiss, this does not affect my opinion or the contents of this review.
Top Gun heads to outer space in this throwback to the classic science fiction of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.
Strapped in to artificial wings spanning twenty-five feet across, your arms push a tenth of your body weight with each pump as you propel yourself at frightening speeds through the air. Inside a pressurized dome on the Moon, subject to one-sixth Earth’s gravity, there are swarms of chiseled, fearless, superbly trained flyers all around you, jostling for air space like peregrine falcons racing for the prize. This was the sport of piloting, and after Helium-3, piloting was one of the first things that entered anyone’s mind when Borealis was mentioned.
It was Helium-3 that powered humanity’s far-flung civilization expansion, feeding fusion reactors from the Alliances on Earth to the Terran Ring, Mars, the Jovian colonies, and all the way out to distant Titan. The supply, taken from the surface of the Moon, had once seemed endless. But that was long ago. Borealis, the glittering, fabulously rich city stretched out across the lunar North Pole, had amassed centuries of unimaginable wealth harvesting it, and as such was the first to realize that its supplies were running out.
The distant memories of the horrific planetwide devastation spawned by the petroleum wars were not enough to quell the rising energy and political crises. A new war to rival no other appeared imminent, but the solar system’s competing powers would discover something more powerful than Helium-3: the indomitable spirit of an Earth-born, war-weary mercenary and pilot extraordinaire.
I am not entirely sure what to say about this book. The writing is transcendently lush, so lush in fact it took me a couple of chapters to determine I had no clue what it was actually saying. So I went back and started over, realizing that the chapters were alternating between present and past. Or at least sometimes it alternated that way. It wasn’t always easy to tell which time stream we were visiting.
The crux of the narrative is the current ramping up of hostilities between the Terran Ring and the lunar settlement Borealis. As Borealis is responsible for the mining of Helium-3, the substance that powers virtually everything in the way that petroleum does in our time, and as the Terran Ring took over everything after the last great Earth war, sucking up resources just as greedily as the mother planet did, hostilities were inevitable. The other part of the story is Clinton Rittener’s history which lead him to acquiring honorary citizenship on Borealis and to take part in the sport of piloting. And tucked all in between were byzantine intrigues that fractured into a dizzying kaleidoscope. And it all coalesced back into something recognizable by the midpoint of the story, and then it sort of fractured off again, but perhaps not so unclearly, as if you could see the picture if only you looked through the corner of your eye.
This is a plot driven rather than a character driven story. But you got just enough hint of the main protagonist (I’ll not call Clinton a hero, because nothing could be further from the truth) to want to know more, and then with one final, heartbreaking thought, that was the last we see of him, and the wrap up of the story seem to be the final, and inevitable, conclusion.
There are no happy endings here. It is quite simply a social commentary on the nature of humanity and the consequences of that nature pushed to its horrible and logical conclusion. Or maybe it isn’t so horrible, I suppose that just depends on your perspective.
So, what do I say about this story? Did I like it? I enjoyed the journey. I enjoyed the two main characters, Clinton especially, and enjoyed what character arc I could see. I even enjoyed the plot, again, what there was of it. But I will say categorically, it wasn’t enough. The best and most compelling stories are about people and how they shape and are shaped by the events around them, and not so much the events themselves. This read like a condensed version of what could, and should, have been an epic. And I easily would have read more. I also hated the ending, but I’m not certain any other outcome was possible once events were set in motion. But I am not going to rate it based on the ending, because when the blurb harkens to Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein you can’t exactly expect a fairy tale ending.
Final verdict, 4 stars, because I’m in no way disappointed to have read it, but it isn’t something I’ll be recommending to all and sundry. And when I do recommend it, I’ll also say the last sentence of the blurb is somewhat misleading.