November 17, 2016


Find the Constellations. By H.A. Rey, with additional material by Ian Garrick-Bethell and Chris Dolan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $19.99.

Andromedan Dark, Book One: Altered Starscape. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     The stylistic naïveté and unfettered delight with which H.A. Rey (1898-1977) approached stargazing continues to come through clearly decades after its author’s death in Find the Constellations, whose original version dates to 1954 and whose current, much-modified one includes such extras as an online planet locater, information on why Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet in our solar system, and much more. The basic Rey approach to the material, however, stands up well despite the scientific advances that have rendered some of the specifics of Find the Constellations obsolete. “Simple shepherds 5,000 years ago were familiar with the heavens; they knew the stars and constellations – and they could not even read or write – so why don’t you?” Rey asks at the book’s outset. And he points out that “you simply must know [the constellations] if you are interested in space travel.” So begins a clearly explained, very well-illustrated exploration of the Big Dipper, Great Bear, Herdsman, Lion, and other star groupings to which we humans have given fanciful names: “One star, for instance, is called Betelgeuse. You pronounce it like ‘beetle juice’ but it has nothing to do with juice for beetles. It’s Arabic and means “giant’s shoulder.’” To make his point amusingly, Rey illustrates this comment with a picture of four beetles drinking from, or waiting their turn to drink from, a glass of juice. Amusing little pictures like that enliven the entire book, which is written with a straightforwardness that is as charming today as it was in the 1950s. The presentation of material remains effective, too. Rey shows the magnitude of stars in the various constellations, offers views of them with connecting lines and without, and provides some excellent basic astronomical information in easy-to-digest form – for example, a list, in order of brightness, of the 15 brightest stars as seen from Earth, and a comment that Cassiopeia “is a W when it’s low and an M when it’s high.” Charts of stars in various seasons are interspersed with stories about how some constellations got their names – the fanciful tale explaining why “Orion shines in winter, the Scorpion in summer, and when one rises the other sets, to this very day,” is particularly enjoyable. Rey’s attitude toward constellations is highly personal and quite delightful: “Hercules was a Greek hero famous for his strength, but as a constellation he is rather weak, without bright stars. Don’t bother about him much but try to find the Dolphin. …The Dolphin is not hard to find, and you’ll like him.” Rey’s astronomical introduction remains one of the best ways to encourage young children’s interest in studying the stars, and perhaps reaching for them in the future.

     In the far future, humans have reached for the stars in innumerable science-fiction works; and adults who have long since given up any notions they may have had of interstellar travel are only too happy to take journeys of imagination with SF authors of all sorts. One of those is William H. Keith, who writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including the name Ian Douglas. In that guise, he has now begun a series called Andromedan Dark with a book called Altered Starscape. There is nothing light or innocent here, and nothing for kids – this is adult-oriented military space opera in which characterization is wholly absent and action is the primary plot element. The central character is Lord Commander Grayson St. Clair, who commands a warship and two accompanying habitats containing more than a million beings: scientists and soldiers, diplomats and robots, and AIs (one of which, Newton, the AI that runs the ship, has more personality than any human character). The expedition is heading toward the galactic center to help the awkwardly named but technologically advanced Coadunation in its war against the mysterious and peculiarly named Denial. Things go wrong rather quickly as the Earth vessel finds alien headquarters, known as Harmony (the names here are not a high point), destroyed. Debris fortuitously hits the ship in a way that does not wreck it but leaves it at the none-too-tender mercy of a black hole, which promptly knocks it four billion years into the future and a war with brain-sucking aliens that can warp space and seem to be made of dark matter. Ridiculousness mounts on ridiculousness in this (++) novel, which does contain bits of intriguing scientific speculation but which delivers them in an extremely irritating manner: the author simply stops the plot in its tracks to insert background information – a characteristic of Keith/Douglas elsewhere in his work, too, and not an endearing one. Fans of the author will enjoy the book and probably award it an additional (+) for one element or another – perhaps for its political subtext, which involves disputes between St. Clair and the ship’s civilian leader, Lord Director Günter Adler, who will have none of this military-control nonsense and demands formation of a civilian administration. Those not already enamored of the work of this author, under whatever name he may be writing, will find little here to draw them into this mostly formulaic story or its characters, who throughout the book remain relentlessly unidimensional.

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