In 2002, Edward McSweegan, a science writer specializing in infection diseases, had two entries in the Maryland Writer's Association / 1st Books.com Book Contest, and *both* won their respective categories. Alpha Transit was the Science Fiction entry, and 1st prize was e-book publication through 1st Books, a so-called Self Publishing House (vanity press). Clearly, McSweegan decided to spring for the hard copy edition as well.
I hope he didn't pay too much.
Before diving into the text, the first thing one notices is the blurry, profoundly uninspired cover and the remarkably peculiar typesetting: a large font size, double spaced! One positive side-effect for the author of so amateur a printing job is the consequent plummeting expectations. The book would have had to be pretty awful to be worse than it appeared. The downside, of course, is that should this volume ever appear on any bookstore's shelves, it is highly unlikely to sell off them.
In fact, Alpha Transit
is not an awful book. It is a bad
book with several redeeming qualities. This is the kind of first novel I imagine an agent reading and saying, "Ed! Great going! Now throw it out and write me another one. But not a sequel."
Despite a painfully over-written opening sequence, the story gets going fairly quickly, and once going it sustains interest to the end. McSweegan brings his scientific background to bear on a great number of details, and while the switch from McSweegan the story teller to McSweegan the science writer is palpable and off-putting, the scientific speculation is fascinating.
The story follows the third expedition to Alpha Centauri. McSweegan postulates a universe teeming with life, and humanity has established a beach-head on one life-supporting Centauri planet, while another one, with a primitive form of intelligent life, orbits the other star. The space ship fares poorly after an encounter with some debris, and is forced to divert to the wrong planet. The action of averting disaster and stabilizing deteriorating conditions onboard is quite exciting, as is the rescue expedition mounted by the earlier colonists.
Along the way, McSweegan packs everything (and the kitchen sink) into the story. Artificial Intelligence, first contact, anti-matter, mysterious artifacts from a high civilization, telepathy, strange alien infections, even a little romance (although it doesn't really go anywhere). You name it, it's probably in here. Still, McSweegan has the story-teller's knack, and by the four-fifth's mark (it reads quickly; must be that double spacing!) I was ready to give him at least one thumbs up. Unfortunately, the book returns to bad with a very weak ending.
There is a tactical standoff between human and primitive alien, based around a mysteriously unoccupied fortress. It is painfully obvious what the alien plan is, but our supposedly intelligent humans don't get it until it is nearly too late. Then the humans, in order to disrupt the alien telepathic communication (well, radio-frequency electromagnetic communication) dump the contents of a computer's memory into the frequency range. Not only is this a stupid way to interfere with the aliens (having the computer generate an interference pattern calculated cause the aliens discomfort would have been no more difficult), but wowie-gee -- the aliens manage to reconstruct all of human civilization from what should be an impossibly cryptic binary pattern in a matter of days. This is the kind of science fiction that no scientifically savvy person should write. Perhaps worse, much of this ending appears to be a setup for a sequel.
Back to the shoddy publishing job for a moment: there are a number of typos along the way, clearly things the spell checker couldn't catch. Usually these consist of people's names mispelled, but there are a few howlers, such as when the space-ship captain threatens to 'kneel-haul' a crew member.
So, if you are looking for a fast-paced exciting tale of interstellar colonization with a largely sound scientific background, you could do worse than Alpha Transit
. McSweegan, however, can almost certainly do better, and if self-publishing his first books doesn't blacklist him forever, I would look forward to a more polished offering from a reputable publisher in the future.
Check out more of bluejack's reviews at his site