An alien encounter that questions the nature of reality

But the Stars is about an alien encounter.

In the most recent of Australian Peter Cawdron‘s eleven standalone novels on the theme of First Contact, there’s action aplenty. But the most meaningful developments are best described as psychological and philosophical. The small human crew on the spaceship Acheron never see any physical manifestation of the aliens they encounter. They merely feel the creatures’ presence, which alters their perception and their consciousness. A philosopher might call But the Stars a novel about epistemology. In other words, this novel describes an alien encounter that raises questions about the nature of reality.


But the Stars (First Contact #11) by Peter Cawdron (2020) 449 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)


Unsurprisingly, then, this novel is slow-going at times, because it’s so confusing to follow the perceptions of the crew. They, of course, are themselves confused.

An alien encounter 100 years away from Earth

The Acheron has sped eighty-eight light years at 96% of the speed of light toward a fictional star called WISE 5571. The ship has landed on a rocky planet known only as P4. Twenty-five years have elapsed on board, although the crew has been in stasis nearly all the way and have not aged appreciably. (More than ninety years have passed on Earth.)

Soon after landing, they come into “contact” with intelligent aliens who “can’t read minds, but they can manipulate thoughts.” In short order, the crew is profoundly disoriented. As one asks, “Who am I really? I’m conscious, but I can’t explain what that means or why I happen to be me.”

Eventually, life on board the Acheron becomes even more confusing, as the ship’s doctor learns that at least one member of the crew has been replaced by an alien and is stirring up conflict.

Spaceship design, time dilation, and the likelihood of an alien encounter

As usual in these First Contact novels, Cawdron depicts a fascinating future reality grounded (largely) in known science. The spaceship he describes in this novel illustrates some of the best thinking about how such a craft might be constructed. And, in an intriguing Afterword, he discusses the science of time dilation at speeds approaching the speed of light. As he notes, “things get complicated close to the speed of light.” His explanation is, pardon the expression, illuminating.

Cawdron also remarks on the physical basis for understanding why it seems likely that life exists elsewhere in the universe. “Theory suggests,” he writes, “life will arise naturally given the right circumstances, as life is the optimal way to redistribute energy—and physics loves efficiency.”

An alien encounter novel rooted in the classics

Cawdron notes in his Afterword that “But the Stars is based on a quote from Dante Aligheri’s 14th century poem The Divine Comedy. ‘But the stars that marked our starting fall away. We must go deeper into greater pain, for it is not permitted that we stay.'”

For further reading

I’ve enjoyed three other novels by Peter Cawdron:

And I’ve included Cawdron in Six new science fiction authors worth reading now.

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