The first round of the second annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2) has ended, and my team has hand-picked three semifinalists to send to two other teams of fellow judges. In return, we have received six semifinalists from two other judging teams, which we will read before the end of April. I have closed my personal semifinals reading with an entry a bit outside of my personal wheelhouse: the zany YA space opera Dim Stars by Brian P. Rubin.
Dim Stars splits the point-of-view between two characters. Dash Drake is the military version of a former child star—a war hero in his youth now reduced to scraping by with small-time cargo-running and a scam of an internship program. Kenzie Washington is a 14 year-old genius who worships the ground Drake walks on. Or at least, she does until her dream internship program doesn’t go quite according to plan.
This is very much a comic YA sci-fi, for all that the stakes are actually pretty high, and it heavily relies on nearly everyone in the main cast having an overwhelming character flaw that constantly gets them in hot water. One of the leads is lazy and inept, while the other is wildly impulsive and doesn’t care how many rules she breaks in search of justice. One side character is social media-obsessed to the point of parody, and another is similarly addicted to taking apart electronics, usually to destructive ends. We round out the main cast with a self-important AI and an octopus who is actually pretty well-adjusted apart from being an octopus and trying to live with the heroes. If “everyone is terrible, and I’m cackling” is your speed, there’s a lot to like here. If not. . . well, at least it’s a very easy read.
The initial hook relies entirely on watching how bad a train wreck can get, with Drake trying to execute a simple cargo run while exploiting teenage labor in his sham internship program. Naturally, everything goes horribly wrong. But as often happens in this sort of story, they stumble upon a much bigger plot. And while the increase in stakes doesn’t decrease the silliness at all, it does add some welcome plot structure and momentum to the central story, as the characters seek to understand and then neutralize the threat. And as they pull together to tackle a problem bigger than they could’ve imagined, the characters start to see their own deficiencies and make some genuine steps forward as people. To some extent, they are who they are, but there’s real character progression here.
Overall, Dim Stars is a zany space opera designed for readers who enjoy watching flawed people make absurd mistake after absurd mistake. . . and perhaps as the story progresses, learn to do something right. It’s an easy read, there are hijinks aplenty, and there’s enough plot and character development to keep things fresh for the full length of the novel. But while it may be a solid example of the subgenre, it’s not a story that goes above and beyond in a way that will draw the attention of readers from outside its niche.
Recommended if you like: not laughing with the characters, but laughing at them.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Young Adult, Self-Published, and Multiverses. It also features Mundane Jobs and Robots
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC score: My personal score will be 6/10. The official team score will be decided in concert with my teammates.