Paradise lost and paradise reclaimed can be powerful tropes in science fiction. In Stolen Earth, J.T. Nicholas attempts to harness these ideas. Wish that I could say he succeeds admirably. For the most part, all I can do is acknowledge the attempt.
Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for the free eARC in exchange for a review.
Grayson Lynch, previously of the Sol Commonwealth Navy, now captains the Arcus out in the Fringe. Lynch, like the rest of his crew, are disillusioned by the combination of control and corruption in SolComm—but as the sole government left to humanity after its disastrous flight from Earth generations ago, it’s either SolComm or a life on the Fringe. Everything changes when Lynch and his crew are offered a job that will take them to Earth. They will dare to penetrate the impenetrable Interdiction Zone that protects SolComm from the artificial intelligences left behind after Earth was inefficiently evacuated. Yet the crew of the Arcus isn’t prepared for what it finds, and it will set off repercussions for all of humanity.
Look, I’ll cut to the chase: this book bored me. Worse, I knew it would, because post-apocalyptic books like this often do. The first red flag happened early: we have a prologue of Lynch as a youth, being assigned to the Navy, and then the story jumps forward several decades to when Lynch is a disillusioned ex-Navy officer who did bad things and regrets them. Instead of showing us all this, though, Nicholas tells it to us. Nicholas tells us everything. Stolen Earth is full of exposition, and it doesn’t work for me.
The other issue is that very few of the characters receive anything resembling development. Lynch is nominally our protagonist, but he actually has no character arc. He starts the book (after the prologue) as a disillusioned and well-meaning captain who cares for his crew and wants to do what’s best. He ends the book the same way. There’s no journey. The same goes for Bishop and Federov. There are two viewpoint characters in addition to Lynch, and they fare better in this regard—Hayer definitely changes a little, and one could argue that Morales has at least a smattering of development. Nevertheless, that isn’t enough to sustain my interest or dramatic tension.
Which brings me to my final complaint: the plot is on rails. The stakes get pretty high, but at no point did I really feel like the crew was in danger. Elements of conflict get resolved without much issue—I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say that our intrepid heroes seldom have to make hard choices. Everything just kind of comes together for them. This is, in part, because having a super-powerful AI can be a kind of deus ex machina. To his credit, Nicholas does try to work around this issue—I just don’t think he entirely succeeds.
In the end, this is not a bad book. Points for subtle gender diversity (a non-binary character, or at least one who uses the Mx honorific, shows up in the prologue). It’s sensibly paced and works fine as a standalone, although it also has potential for a sequel. I can see other people who are more tolerant of staid exposition enjoying this book a lot more than me. Unfortunately, as much as I love the idea of strong AI and reclaiming a planet, Stolen Earth never gets me caring.