Book Review: Alder’s World (Part 1: Mass 17)

With Part 2 of Joel Stottlemire’s novel arriving on October 29, I thought it would be a good time to review Part 1. There’s a lot happening in Alder’s World—we meet the crew of a ship on an historic exploration, learn about several important factions, see one of humanity’s earliest interactions with an alien species, and along the way we discover that there’s an entire universe just beyond the boundaries of this novel. The reason all of this comes together: The Dryden Experiment.

Before I delve into the book itself, I’d like to situate it in its proper context for those who aren’t familiar with The Dryden Experiment. Using Creative Commons to promote, collaborate, and expand upon existing works, the artists and authors of Dryden build fictional worlds bigger than the sum of their parts. Alder’s World is connected to a large framework of stories, characters, settings, and history, all part of a shared science fiction universe known as Dryden Universe.

Alder’s World is set in the first of four eras, known as the Primer. The Primer chronicles a new age of space ventures for the people of Earth and the rise of a trans-galactic society driven by powerful corporations. You don’t need to know the history that exists outside of the book, but if you do, the experience of reading it will be so much richer. I should know. On my first read-through of Part 1, I enjoyed it but some of the details overwhelmed me. The second time, I went into it with more knowledge of Dryden Universe and having read stories by other authors writing in-universe. Different parts caught my attention. I noticed bits of the story that escaped me before, which made it more fun, regardless of the fact that I already knew what came next.

Part 1 begins with the crew of the LOP Duster encountering a strange object in space, the eponymous Mass 17. Commissioned by the League of Planets, the Duster is on a deep-space research mission that’s brought them farther than anyone yet. On the very fringes of their known universe, Samuel Alder and his crewmates find that their newest discovery is a terrifying glimpse of just how little they understand about their place in the cosmic food chain. Alder finds himself thrust into a position of great responsibility as the ship’s chief scientist. It’s up to him to unlock the secrets of Mass 17 and prevent the Duster’s prolific voyage from ending in devastation.

One thing I loved about this book was its pacing. From the first page, we’re in the story and important events are unfolding; you won’t find wasted words in Stottlemire’s prose, as he neatly moves from one scene to the next, marching the story along. I never felt bored, never questioned where the story was going, and it led to me saying, “Well, I’ll just read one more chapter…” Soon, I had finished it, still stunned by the furious burst of action in the ending.

Even as the plot continues to roll and kick open doors on its way, the reader meets a fairly large group of characters who serve alongside Alder. Apart from seeing their place in the ship’s hierarchy, the reader gets a sense of these characters as individuals whose distinct personalities and abilities make each of them valuable to their mission. The relationships are realistic, too—not everyone on the Duster gets along with each other, and even those who do, have moments of frustration and misunderstanding that add depth to the novel’s realism. It’s a strong cast of characters that I wanted to succeed, because I’d been pulled into their lives and seen their struggles. Like many of my favorite stories, Alder’s World shines because of its focus on characters. Yes, there are all sorts of science-fictiony things going on here, but it’s really about the people.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This is definitely science fiction, complete with the wonders of space exploration, speculation about future lifestyles of people on long-term voyages, and various nods to the array of technology present in the wider realm of Dryden Universe. Some of the best moments in the novel involve the mysterious Mass 17 and the phenomena that Alder’s trying to figure out. I’d really like to say more about that, but I’d run the risk of spoiling the most important events in the story. Whatever is going on with Mass 17, believe me when I say it’s some scary shit.

The book isn’t without its flaws. Some of the text isn’t as polished as it could be, which might cause someone to slow down at points where it wasn’t intended. None of these issues proved too overwhelming for me, and overall they were cosmetic problems rather than essential faults of the story. A missing comma or space between words wasn’t enough to stop me from enjoying Alder’s World.

Maybe I’m being greedy, but I also would have liked to know more about the secondary characters. They’re believable and each one has a definite place in the narrative, yet sometimes I felt like there was a little more to them that could have been explored further. With a few notable exceptions, we don’t learn much about who these people were before they signed up to serve on a deep-space mission that would take them away from everything they’d ever known. I’m sure part of this is due to the fact that this is only Part 1, but I still wanted more.

Overall, I give this one high marks, because it’s an engaging read that held my attention throughout and made me care about the fate of the Duster’s crew. I think this novel succeeded in that I felt like I’d been brought aboard the ship, part of the unfolding adventure on the new frontier. There’s comradery, mutiny, madness, survival, rich environments, a strong plot, and more than a hint of the terrors of space. Part 1 of Alder’s World never let me get too comfortable, which mirrored the experience of its characters, and its conclusion is a satisfying resolution that made me eager for Part 2.

"The Cube" by Gavin Revitt

Alder’s World  (Part 1) is available on Smashwords, and it’s currently FREE to download.

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