A review of Dusted By Stars, the latest installment in G.A. Matiasz' ongoing science fiction storyline first presented in 1% Free.
G.A. Matiasz’ science fiction features elaborate world building. He situates readers in the historical, geographical, and technological aspects of his future worlds, but he also explores how the social and political structures drive his characters’ actions. Most of them are busy with the day to day work of making a living but in the larger context of looming or ongoing crises they become important players.
In his previous novel,1% Free we followed a handful of characters on Earth in the 2040s. Ecological disasters, national Balkanization, and the rise of fascist movements cast doubt on the long term viability of the human species. These characters are drawn together around a series of mysterious killings which turn out to be linked to an alien. By the end of the story a piece of alien technology falls into the hands of humanity, who are welcomed into the galactic community of intelligent life via first contact.
Dusted By Stars picks up hundreds of years later. By this time the upheavals of Earth have progressed to full blown collapse and the “Gaians” (humans) have made several failed attempts at terraforming other planets to make them inhabitable. It is similar to the world of Star Trek, an early influence on the young Matiasz, in which the Federation arose out of the ashes of horrible planet destroying wars. In a recent Maximum RocknRoll column, Matiasz, writing as “Lefty Hooligan” explained that he eventually became critical of the show he loved:
Once I became political, I realized Star Trek embodied a lot of pretty reactionary ideas; the myth of the American frontier for one, and various Cold War and Vietnam War myths for another. And, of course, there was the sexism of “no man” frequently pointed out at the time. The show was steeped in American exceptionalism, yet I still hold a soft spot in my heart for the original series.
In Mike Davis’ latest book with Jon Wiener, Set The Night On Fire, L.A. In The Sixties, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry gets a brief mention. Roddenberry was a cop before he became a full time television writer (around 1957). He had been recruited by the reactionary, racist LAPD Chief William Parker as his main speech writer. We can be glad Roddenberry switched careers as the content of Star Trek seems a pretty big shift toward promoting a more egalitarian, even anti-racist future. But the mention in Davis and Wiener’s book puts some perspective on lingering Cold War era conservatism in the Star Trek universe.
Back to Dusted By Stars, eventually the humans in their forced exodus from the dying Earth finally achieve some success on Mars. The Martian population, Earth ex-pats, develop a socialist society. Stacey Jones grew up on Mars. She is a space trucker “with a union card” hauling freight as jobs become available, but she’s just scraping by. Desperate for work she’s contacted by a mysterious figure who has a big job, implying it’s going to be dangerous.
We meet various types of alien life among Stacey’s crew. There is Kyrz, who is of an insect like species, the Koldara. She lost her blue collar podmates in an industrial accident and wants to get back to her planet to be assimilated into a new pod. Aspects of Kyrz’s communal philosophy resonate with Stacey’s socialist views. Then there is Xa, a kind of disembodied intelligence in a box that Stacey found among space debris on a previous run. Xa is relying on Stacey to take her to her home world for integration into a new body. Stacey has her own quest, to find an Eden like planet she learned about from an ancient holographic map she has come into possession of.
The presence of aliens in this adventure makes it feel more like a Star Wars/Star Trek type of science fiction than 1% Free. Matiasz has written in his Lefty Hooligan column about various assessments of the likelihood of alien life in the galaxy. The Drake Equation estimates a hundred billion planets in our galaxy and a sizable percentage of those with the potential to sustain life. This is complicated by the Fermi Paradox which questions why, with so many possible life sustaining worlds over so long a time, have we not yet found alien intelligence? Could “alien” life forms, so different from the normal carbon based standard, arise on Earth by DNA mutations? At any rate, Matiasz believes it is more likely than not that “ETIs,” or Extra Terrestrial Intelligences do exist but considers the reasons they might not have been detected yet. Humans may have been early out of the evolutionary gates in the galaxy. Other civilizations could have already destroyed themselves. There is some discussion by characters in his recent books of a progenitor species (also present in Star Trek and the Ridley Scott Alien/Prometheus universe among others) behind all life in the galaxy. He wrote in MRR that:
My second novel, 1% Free, has lots of ETIs. My fictional explanation is that the various advanced extraterrestrial civilizations depicted all arose within five hundred years of each other because the Milky Way was originally seeded with organic life by a precocious, galaxy-spanning, alien progenitor species. We haven’t detected these ETIs because they are simultaneously co-evolving with humanity across the galaxy.
The crew of Stacey Jones’ Skylark is hired by a mysterious stranger named Medea who, to understand better, you may want to google some Greek mythology. The level of technology incorporated into this character’s own body leaves the distinct impression of her being some kind of witch with magical powers. She also has a black cat. A familiar? She can tell stories about alien artifacts in the hands of earthlings as far back as prehistoric Neanderthals.
I’ve read a couple of science fiction books recently: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry For The Future and Kit Power’s A Song For the End. This book falls somewhere between those, in that these characters struggle in a world that was saved after the optimal time for doing so, but they’re also on a snappy, high stakes thrill ride with an uncertain resolution that will leave you wondering what happens next.
With Matiasz’ work, the various threads, be they references to politics or mythology, are shaped by his own life experience (as he has written about in his Lefty Hooligan columns for three decades). He lived through the late hippy and early punk cultural scenes in the San Francisco Bay Area, and was politically active in trade union, communist, anarchist, and other movements of the Left. His analysis has sometimes been cynical, or at least opinionated, but he’s also changed his mind on a few things. In his science fiction, he’s not interested in providing answers, final victories, or perfect societal blueprints as much as writing about his characters struggles, class struggles and existential ones.
On parallels between his science fiction and political writing:
As an inveterate leftist, imagining political alternatives to the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy are my bread and butter. No wonder then that I’m equally fascinated by the scientific alternatives of ETI’s [extraterrestrial intelligences] and “shadow biospheres.” I’m thoroughly dispirited by the mess we humans have made of the planet and our social realm so a little political and scientific utopianism is inevitable.
In Dusted By Stars the Gaians have come up for air after a long period of decline and catastrophe. Having survived, they have the chance to become better stewards of their worlds or relapse into the same destructive behaviors that brought mass death. The struggle between some kind of inclusive socialism or barbarism runs through this world.