The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald
Here's something different (at least for those of us in the US) - an interstellar society in which neither Americans nor European countries are running the show. Australians discovered an alien interstellar transport network and Australians are predominant in interstellar travel and colonies. The colonies have Australian (and New Zealand-related) names.
The starships, on the other hand, are named after environmental disasters. The story centers on the ship Aral Sea. These are huge ships transporting passengers and materials, but crewed and run by an Australian-based space navy. The main characters are military personnel in this space navy. At least to that extent, this is military SF.
But it isn't military SF in a typical sense. It’s not a warship – it’s more like a commercial vessel with a military crew. The story begins with the daily lives of a crew on a ship on what should be a routine transport run. There are inventory reports to be written, supply-retrieval robots to be repaired, meetings to be attended... And bullies and worse making life tougher. While there is violence in the book, there isn’t much one might call a “military engagement”.
The central character is a woman officer who has just recuperated from a disaster on another ship, the Yangtzee. She’s put in charge of a section involved in supplies – a section that has been known to have troubles. She starts to work to rebuild discipline, morale and productivity. Romantic interest begins to develop between her and one of the men in her section. He is dealing with issues from his youth as well as with a belligerent guy from the repair section. There seem to be some oddities related to the repair section, some oddities with some supply-retrieval robots, and hints of murky doings.
Unfortunately, in addition to that we have some mumbo-jumbo about an aboriginal shaman trying to communicate with him – mostly in dreams, but seen at least once during the day. There are bits and pieces of threads connecting these communications together and relating them to the rest of the story. However, even ignoring any issues of implausibility, their necessity for the completion of the story seems limited at best. There is one point where he gets “essential information” in a dream, but it is only essential because the author has put him in a predicament that was not necessary for the story.
The plot gets an element of mystery as they try to understand anomalies in the inventory, problematic robots, and the repair personnel. This increases when there is confusion over which side certain crew members are on. There is also a question of terrorism having caused the disaster on the Yangtzee, and a scientist proposing an alternate explanation. Our heroes also stumble upon some additional alien technology that has some “gee whiz” value.
The approach and development of the romantic relationship is different than in much SF. My impression is it will be of more importance and impact for women readers.
The book was OK, but not one I expect will be that memorable.