What would that first contact with an alien species be like? In The Stars Beyond: A Twilight Imperium Anthology six authors imagine exactly that, but not necessarily from the human perspective.
An anthology edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, The Stars Beyond is set in the same world as the galactic conquest game Twilight Imperium. The authors use the framework of alien races and circumstances laid out in Twilight Imperium and create stories about individual lives within that construct. Is this anthology another hit for Aconyte? Let’s set off on our own space adventure as we explore what’s happening in The Stars Beyond.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Aconyte for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of The Stars Beyond contains some spoilers!]
First contact stories in The Stars Beyond
All of the stories in The Stars Beyond deal with first contact, either between entire alien races or between individuals that have no real experience with each other. A strong recurring theme of all the stories is trust. Some, like “A Ghost of a Chance” and “First Impressions” deal with trusting new entities. Finding common ground and deciding if someone you’ve never met is going to hurt or help you is a familiar enough experience on Earth but takes on a whole new level of danger in the vastness of space.
Most of the stories dealt with the breaking of one trust and the forging of a new one. In “Shield of the Reef” and “Contact” the government is the one that can’t be trusted. In both stories, people from different alien races and with different objectives must decide if they can trust each other. If they can’t they won’t survive but there’s no guarantee cooperation will save them either.
“The Fifth Stage” looks at betrayal through the lens of grief. The universe betrays the main character as much as anyone else. But a strange turn of events gives her a chance for both acceptance and revenge if she is willing to trust one of the most alien life forms in The Stars Beyond.
My favorite offering in The Stars Beyond was the final story in the anthology. “Defiler’s Reef” takes the maxim “trust but verify” very seriously. A secluded race on the moon of a lonely planet seems like the perfect first conquest for provisional admiral Alyce Maizere. But she should have done some homework. The seemingly primitive society eschews technology by choice and for good reason, as she finds out.
In The Stars Beyond things aren’t really that different
It turns out that even aliens are human. Or at least we all share the same basic emotions. With the exceptions of the Creuss and the Arborec, who are hive-minded races that don’t seem to quite understand individual emotions, all of the races had similar motivations to humans. They experienced joy and sadness, fear and mistrust. And whether their motives were selfish or magnanimous, hidden or obvious, they could all ultimately be understood.
Even though it was aliens of different races interacting, I couldn’t help but relate to the different characters as they navigated the pitfalls of first contact. To be honest, it didn’t feel all that different from meeting new people here on Earth. Trying to carve out your own place, trying to decide who is a friend or a foe, trying to avoid social minefields, it all felt like everyday life dressed up in a shiny new outfit.
It is both comforting and saddening to see Earth’s pettiness played out in the vastness of space. There is a feeling of “somethings never change” and “I know this” that makes the strangeness of other worlds and beings feel more familiar.
However, at the same time it’s a little sad to think that with all the advancements in technology on display in the stories, our baser drives still continue to rule the galaxy. I hope that should we ever become so advanced as to traverse the entire cosmos we will evolve emotionally past pettiness, jealousy, and cruelty. But where’s the story there I guess?
A cohesive grouping
Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells did a great job pulling these stories together. They are called “six tales of first contact” and they are, but “six tales of trust” could have just as easily been their subtitling.
Even though they all deal with different characters and usually different races (there is some cross-over between the stories but because Twilight Imperium has so many different races, each author mostly chose different species to explore) they felt very connected.
I like when anthologies have that connectedness to them. Exploring a concept from different angles gives my brain a nice work-out even after the stories themselves are over. And I did continue to contemplate the different stories long after I was done reading. Llewelyn-Wells’ authors do a great job of this and I was very satisfied when I finished The Stars Beyond.
Down to Earth sci-fi
For a book called The Stars Beyond, this anthology was surprisingly terrestrial. Of the six tales, four are mostly or wholly on-planet tales. Granted these planets aren’t Earth, or even close to Earth, but they are land. Only the first two entries, “A Ghost of a Chance” and “The Fifth Stage” take place fully in space. This doesn’t take away from the storytelling at all, it just is unexpected with the name. I was expecting all of the stories to take place mostly or fully on spaceships. After reading it, I would have called it Worlds Beyond personally, but I digress.
Despite the slight misnomer, anyone who likes discovering new worlds and new alien species will enjoy The Stars Beyond. If space and alien stories aren’t usually your thing there is still a good chance you will enjoy this book.
The characters come across as human in their emotions that sometimes I would forget they were aliens until a line like “stroked his mane” or “swished her tail” would pop up and I would have to adjust my mental picture! It’s certainly worth picking up and reading. Then look up at the stars and wonder, if it was you, would you be able to trust?
My Rating: 8/10
The Stars Beyond: A Twilight Imperium Anthology edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells is available now. Do you plan on reading it? Let us know over on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our latest Aconyte book review, Sound of Light!