The Stardoc series
by S. L. Viehl
15 February 2005 book reviews
Warning! This review contains spoilers.
The Stardoc series is about the life of an interstellar doctor, the friends and enemies she makes (both alien and human), and how she does her best to live her life as normally as possible -- considering she is a genetic construct, and a xenophobic Earth considers her to be no more than her creator/father's escaped "lab rat."
The books are usually enjoyable. The series is not terribly startling -- an alert reader will catch most of the big "surprises" in the stories well before they are revealed -- but it's certainly acceptable entertainment. Currently the books are, in order:
One of my pet peeves in fiction is people who write of things they know nothing about. Fortunately, Viehl seems quite familiar with both the medical profession and the usual mindset of doctors. I did occasionally find it a touch odd to read drug or medicine names I recognized from today, but perhaps the names of medications change less over time, in the future, than they initially did in our past.
However, the author certainly had plenty of other medical advances which I found fascinating, and truly wish we could implement today. Sterile, impenetrable force fields for surgery, at the switch of a button? Wonderful!
The initial book in the series tells of Dr. Cherijo Gray Veil's escape from her over-controlling father and xenophobic Earth, to a distant stellar colony in desperate need of competent surgeons. While there she makes friends and enemies, finds love, faces a plague, and escapes attempts to capture her and return her to Earth.
The first book was fun and usually quite interesting, with a couple of nice (if predictable) plot twists in it. The required romantic subplot was a bit contrived, and left me feeling a bit unbelieving. If someone effortlessly invaded my mind, took over my body, and did so without my permission, I suspect I'd have him slapped with -- at bare minimum -- a restraining order (or whatever they're called in the future), no matter how pretty he was.
Despite this requisite "romantic" stupidity, other parts of the book were fun. The character development and interplay of the doctors was well-handled. The concepts and characters were fresh and new to me, and I enjoyed the book enough that I was looking forward to the second book.
In this book Cherijo adjusts to life as a fugitive from Earth's military forces by practicing her profession for her new adopted people. While on their ship, she makes more friends, finds love, uncovers a psychopathic murderer, saves her adopted planet from alien slavers, and escapes attempts to capture her and return her to Earth.
The second book wasn't bad, although knowing who the psychopath is before the characters do means you have to wade through a couple of tragic murders while you wait for them to figure it out. Also, there was one cultural "cheap shot" I didn't much care for -- an unpleasant minor character is revealed to come from an unremittingly filthy and apparently worthless culture. Considering how interestingly varied most of Viehl's aliens are, I found that a bit simplistic and two-dimensional.
Unfortunately the second book ended with a real downer of an ending, which made me seriously consider not bothering to read any further. Treachery from friends and beloveds is a bit of a hot button for me, and knowing for about a hundred or so pages that it's going to end horribly isn't much fun for the reader.
Personally, I've no idea why the author ended the story there. Why didn't she cut off just a handful of pages earlier, leaving the readers with a worried but hopeful feeling, then start the next book with the big, horrible betrayal?
Perhaps there were publishing demands here, as in a certain required number of pages. However, a plot development such as she posed in this book's ending is one I'd think would be best handled immediately and interestingly within the story, rather than left hanging at the end of the book, to make the reader wait however long it took Viehl to write the next story.
The only other series I know of which has a similarly depressing and demoralizing ending was the Lay of Paksenarrion, and I didn't really like it there either. At least you didn't have your nose rubbed in it in the Pax stories, though -- the third book in that series started perking up the protagonist almost immediately.
Unfortunately, immediately "perking up" does not occur in this series' next volume -- and so the third book, Endurance, was rather iffy for me. In this book Cherijo doctors both slaves and their alien captors on the planetoid the slavers are using as a depot. While there she does her best to avoid being killed, mastered, tortured, eaten, or discovered as a conduit in the "underground railroad" which is helping slaves escape.
I'll admit freely, I find heroes who neglect to think through the potential consequences of their actions, then blame the consequences on others, somewhat irritating. Also, you have to wade through some repulsive (although possibly accurate) depictions of the humiliation and degradation of slavery, and the destruction of ethical thought in some of the captors -- very "mad Nazi doctor" feeling. The book does end well, however, which sort of made up to me for the incredibly depressing ending of the second book.
I am also not fond of the classic romantic fiction stricture which says the heroine must be incapable of communicating well with the object of her affections, and must be somehow physically inferior to him. For example, Cherijo has little good to say to her former-sweetheart/now-slave-owner, even though we find out it would have been smart if she'd at least tried to listen to him, and he's almost alienly inarticulate himself as well.
Also, in the book her love interests are both about 6' tall, whereas she herself is much smaller. Indeed, we find out in a later book she's about the size of a child, standing at 4'11". I think it's sad a strong, capable female character like this has to be symbolically "emasculated" so she's not too "threatening," and I'm not fond of males being portrayed as needing to push females around to show their desire. Female passivity in the face of rampant male physical possessiveness is bad enough in this world -- I see no reason to idealize or romanticize it.
This book starts with Cherijo and her husband falling into a rather obvious trap which results in their being captured and returned to Earth. While in the clutches of her creator/father, they're rescued by an underground-living tribe of alien/Native Indian crossbreeds, led by a disturbingly charismatic madman. The two of them are forced to aid the tribe in fielding a winning team in a dangerous sport, and Cherijo makes some disturbing discoveries about her past.
Because of my impatience with deliberate obtuseness, it was a relief when the heroine finally decided, in the fourth book, to come clean with her husband. Unfortunately I couldn't really figure out the reason for the length of the fourth book -- as far as I could tell the story's entire purpose could have been excellently told in maybe 200 pages, instead of the over 400 which it took.
During the story you're introduced to a truly unpleasant but charismatic character, and get hit once again with the tired old chestnut of a female character produced just for breeding stock. The Perfect Progenitor of the Future Race -- gosh, have we ever heard that one before? Nazi themes predominate!
The death of the main villain of the series, in the fourth book, was almost anticlimactic, considering he just walked into it for no good character-based reason. By the time he and the charismatic madman are killed, it's mostly a relief -- a sort of "phew, that was tiring; glad they're gone," instead of any real pathos, or desire to cheer for the heroine. I will admit it always leaves me a little cold while reading a story, though, when someone suddenly starts behaving completely anomalously, without explanation, such as the main villain did.
Safely back with her adopted people, Cherijo travels with them to a variety of planets. In doing so she faces the problems of dealing with religious zealots with medical issues, undying immortals with medical issues, and motherhood, and attempts unsuccessfully to discover more about her past.
The last book also made me wish it weren't quite so long. It's obvious from the various books Viehl (or, to be fair, just the heroine) views religion as a form of deliberate stupidity or madness, which I find a bit unfair, even though I'm not terribly religious myself. After all, some of the most devout individuals of our world also created some of our most beautiful cultural monuments.
Also, to depict religious fervency as creating an unremittingly short, brutish, and nasty medieval culture, where even animal-drawn carts are a sin against their god, is one thing. To suddenly have these same people jump into their theoretically sacredly maintained, several-hundred-year-old space ships, and zip off to declare religious war on another world, just becomes silly and unbelievable.
The precocious child with the thick, cutesy-poo speech pattern got a bit old after a while; I'm not that wild about emotionally manipulative, indulged kids as it is. I also can't help wondering why everyone seems to be deliberately blinding themselves to the kid's unique abilities. Doesn't anyone ever ask how she keeps getting in and out of these locked rooms, for god's sake?
Also, once again using heretofore unremembered "ancient laws" from an alien culture to try to induce tension was not new nor original. By the time Cherijo's husband and adopted older brother were fighting to the death over her, I was thoroughly disgusted with her incessant waffling about them, and couldn't help wishing she'd simply hit both men over the head with the "ancient texts" instead of just reading from them.
In effect, the book started to get a rather Star Trek - First Series feel to it after a while. I understand sending your best and brightest down to a planet for parley, and I also understand the author's need to have you care about what's happening on the planet. However, repeatedly sending (for example) the Captain and the lead doctor downside, just to have their launch repeatedly stolen/accidentally damaged/vandalized so they're yet again imprisoned/sold into slavery/stuck there... doesn't necessarily strike me as smart.
Another Star Trek-like convention I didn't much care for was the appearance of the all-powerful alien deity-type. Personally, if my leaping through Q's stupid psychological hoops determined the fate of the Human race, I can't swear we'd all still be around. I have an incredibly bad reaction to spoiled & petulant children, and I wish I knew why we all assume that's how every all-powerful being will behave. Are we projecting our own snotty mindset onto what absolute power might be like, or are we just playing "sour grapes" with our own feelings of powerlessness?
Overview of the Series
I already mentioned the cultural cheap shot and the unpleasant view on religion, above. One other theme running through the series bugged me, although it's quite possible other readers loved it. I refer to the deliberate creation of tension between the males and females in the stories, to create interest and/or "romantic" suspense for the reader. I'm not sure why a stupid refusal to communicate well can be considered romantic, but then I also don't find demandingly possessive and physically pushy males (or females, for that matter) interesting to be around.
The use of on-again/off-again marriage as a tool to demonstrate the heroine's emotional confusion got rather old after a while. Considering the Human species isn't really monogamous, having the heroine waffle on incessantly about who she's going to live with/marry/have sex with/trust didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
Making her first lover come from a (theoretically) genetically monogamous species, so the heroine couldn't just share with both the guys she was attracted to, was one of the reasons the first book's romantic subplot felt so forced. It didn't help either when the author played around with that so-called genetic monogamy in the second book, in order to drive the story.
On the other hand, I guess if everyone was happily and non-jealously sharing with each other (the logical conclusion to loving more than one person, duh), the author wouldn't have much to work with as far as emotional/sexual tension, which I believe is a requirement in the romance market. Still, this incessant whining about who belongs to/marries whom made about as much sense to me as someone getting their shorts in a knot about who will shave their eyebrows together with whom.
By the publication dates, Viehl has really blasted these books out at top speed. They're about 400 pages each, which adds up to 2000 published pages in about three years -- which impresses me. The first two were released in January and July of 2000, the second two in January and November of 2001, and the last in September of 2002.
It's obvious, from the rather unexciting ending of the last book and the lack of resolution to the heroine's researching of her background, that the series is unfinished. Unfortunately I'm not sure I care. Also, while there are more books in this particular fictional universe which I've not read, I don't think I'll seek them out. I bought the first book used, and got all the others from the library. To be honest, if I'd paid good money for the second book I'd have been quite irritated about it.
However, to be fair to the author I should point out two things. First, I am a very critical reader. This review unsurprisingly probably sounds quite negative, as I'm mostly pointing out my disappointments, not my pleasures, in the books.
Second, despite my disappointments I did actually go ahead and read through the entire Stardoc series as of July 2004. If the books had been unremittingly awful I would not have. Instead, I found things to enjoy and thoughtfully puzzle over in almost all the books. While I cannot recommend the series with wild enthusiasm, I can recommend it.
I'd be quite interested in how other people see this series, so please feel free to give me your views -- I'd appreciate that.
08.12.04: Lou's thoughts
(and my replies)
This is a nonhuman? What is she? Merely an improvement to the species or something completely different? It doesn't matter, but I'm nosy.
As far as I can tell, she's initially portrayed as just a really good genetic improvement on the species. Later books hint at something potentially more superhuman, which I admit I found a bit tedious, since I didn't like the supercilious attitude of the "hinter."
Stardoc: I thought you'd have a stronger reaction to body-stealing. Ick.
It only occurred for a few seconds (at least in this book) but it permanently and definitively killed any potential of my finding that guy an interesting romantic possibility within the story.
Beyond Varallon & Endurance: They sound icky. A former lover turned owner of the protagonist as a slave? Ick.
Guess who it was? See above. ;-p
Shockball: Sounds confusing and unpleasant.
Eternity Row: I don't understand what or why this book was about. Animal drawn carts and hundreds of year old spaceships? Why? Oddly, I have no problem believeing this in "Firefly", but it doesn't make sense here.
Umm... actually, I never quite grasped the point of the story either, as I noted in my review. Too many words for too little information or character building.
Genetic monogamy? Huh?
*sigh* Don't ask. Badly conceptualized, ridiculously handled.
All I can say is that this sounds confusing and unpleasant, and I'm glad you've saved me the trouble of reading them.
Hm. I admit, in your shoes I'd be pleased at being warned not to waste my time on something I probably wouldn't like. However, I do admit to a pang of worry that I've kept you from something you might have liked. I don't know... how do you feel about it?
02.17.05: George's thoughts
(and my replies)
"The only other series I know of which has a similarly depressing and demoralizing ending was the Lay of Paksenarrion, and I didn't really like it there either. At least you didn't have your nose rubbed in it in the Pax stories, though -- the third book in that series started perking up the protagonist almost immediately."
The series was "The Deed of Paksenarrion" and the second book (with the downer ending) was "Divided Allegiance."
Ah, thank you! I'll add that info in. I liked that series.
Otherwise an interesting set of reviews. In retrospect, do you think it was worth the time to read all 5 books? Your review doesn't make it sound like it.
Hm. In all honesty, George... I don't know. Frankly, while only bits of each book interested me, those individual bits were rather fun. Now if her editor had made her trim a lot of the excess verbiage out, I think there'd have been a very nice, fun, interesting series -- of only, say, 3 books. That I could definitely recommend. ;)
02.17.05: Brett's thoughts
(and my replies)
I... the initial concept you give up there makes me interested in it, but after reading the full review, I can't help but agree with Lou, that I feel I've been protected from a series I otherwise would have probably not enjoyed reading.
I admit, the initial premise drew me quite strongly as well. That, coupled with my being a fast reader, got me through all 5 chunky books rather quickly. I can't say that's a good thing, though... ;-j
It seems to manage almost all of the annoying bad cliches I really despise when I hit them in books, movies, or TV series. Everything from the sympathy for the slaver, to the romantic problems happening for no good reason, to what seems like a use of cheesy plot-devices to drive a plot-line that can't support itself.
And then we have the "Battlefield Earth" Movie (and man that did horrible things to a cheesy, but not all that bad book) and now we can instantly use super-advanced, compared to our current standards, tech with minimal training' crap. Argh!
I really do agree with you on the dislike of pushy, demanding, people, so being expected to consider such a character one of the good guys is going to be annoying, and don't even get me started on the juvenile super-being 'Q' thing. The 'Ascended' from Stargate are bad enough, and even they are just ignoring everything that goes on, instead of actively poking sticks into the anthill.
Sorry about that, but the review implies the series seems to manage to, in its books, manage to push most of the buttons I have, while still nominally being about the kind of subject matter I would otherwise enjoy. Ah well, there are other good books out there. :)
Hear, hear. If you know of any you think would be enjoyable reading and reviewing for me, let me know! I like receiving good suggestions.
I did quite enjoy the "Lay of Paksenarrion," though I think it helps that I ended up reading the entire series in quick succession, because I really did feel for her. Though by the end of it she was becoming a bit too... well, she was kind of making the move from being a paladin to 'something else' and that something else didn't feel very human at times. Still, it's a series I enjoyed, and did read more than once.
I also enjoyed it, and I agree with your assessment. I suspect absolute good, like absolute evil, is boring! ;->
02.20.05: David's thoughts
(and my replies)
I'm pretty sure I read one of these Stardoc novels a while ago. I can't remember what it was about, which is pretty rare for me unless the story is really weak. From your comments I'm thinking this is the case here. Never much cared for the downtrodden heroine having a rough time in the mean future. Bleah.
Yup, I too can generally retain good stories, but this one's fading already, I see, when I re-read the critique I wrote.
Some fun stories I do remember are John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons, and Emerald Sea. Historical craft faire buffs getting by after the fall of a super high tech civilization. The good guys re-invent the Roman Legions. The bad guys invent Orcs and trolls. Then they fight! Good stuff, not the usual post-apocalyptic crapola.
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross which starts with a rain of cell phones on a planet of indentured peasants and gets much more fun after that. How can you not like a rain of cell phones?
Well, as long as they don't land on my head... ;)
Neal Asher, Gridlinked and Line of Polity. Human star empire deals with moon sized superhuman A.I.s and home grown terrorists. Very nice.
And they have the advantage of being memorable! ~:D
*happy sniffle* Oh my god, you gave me good reading suggestions! Do you know how rare that is?! I really want good suggestions, dammit -- I don't want to waste my time reading crap, after all! Hmm... now I just have to find all these spiffy new books. Thank god for interlibrary loan... ;)