Slingshot: Building the Largest Machine in Human History (The Starchild Trilogy, Book 1), by Robert G. Williscroft

Disappointing Sci-Fi Despite good premise and some good writing

Imagine a Sci-Fi novel centered around the construction of the first starship, complete with detailed schematics and detailed descriptions of the construction techniques, along with the inner-workings of the propulsion systems, weapons, sanitation, food-preparation, etc.  Now, add a conspiracy to scuttle the project from a shadowy organization that plants agents on the construction crew to commit acts of sabotage like planting a bomb in the munitions bay and cutting cables holding the half-finished ship in place.  The villains have an environmental/political objection to space flight and an ends-justifying-the-means mentality.  The story would follow the chief construction engineer and his team, including an attractive and smart female specialist, as they struggle to overcome the obstacles to finish the project, face multiple life-threatening perils, and also deal with their growing sexual attraction.

That story is what Robert G. Williscroft is going for in his novel, “Slingshot,” which is the first in a sci-fi trilogy called “The Starchild.”  According to the book’s forward, the baseline scientific concept is founded in a real idea for a “launch loop” that would hurl objects into Earth orbit without the need for rockets.  Williscroft attempts to explain the physics of the theoretical project with detailed descriptions and diagrams.  But, although I generally love to read about such things, I was never able to fully envision the launch loop, the “largest machine in human history.”  But, Sci-fi is often about suspending disbelief about the technological premises that the author puts forward and riding along with the story.  The good news is that this book is very well-written and well-edited, with many gripping and lovely descriptions, including undersea diving sequences and sub-orbital space scenes.  At times, the descriptions are longer and more detailed than necessary, but fans of good prose will find the pages easy to read.

The bad news is that the character-driven portions of the story fall short of gripping, and the plot points where we can’t and shouldn’t suspend disbelief fail to create any real suspense and in many cases just don’t make sense.  The main characters are Alex (the chief engineer of the project) and Margo (the attractive and smart head of undersea construction).  The author tells us constantly that they are attracted to each other, but the attraction remains unrequited.  Meanwhile, it seems like every other female character is over-sexed and plucked from the pages of a romance novel.  There are many, many other peripheral characters, making it difficult to follow at times, but none are ever fleshed out well enough to really care about them.  The villains of the story similarly lack sufficient back-story and explanation to make us really dislike them.  They pop into and out of the narrative in small snippets to state plot points, but they never feel really menacing.

The plot points, which move along very, very slowly, also fail to really come together.  The shadowy villains work for an organization called Environment Inc., which opposes the Slingshot project because it has potential to harm the planet in some unexplained way.  Alex convinces several of the youthful agents of an environmental protest group that Slingshot is actually the greenest engineering project ever and that it really will help save the planet, but the boss villains are still hell-bent on wrecking it.  EI is so well-financed and so able to come up with whatever resources it needs on a moment’s notice (without any explanation) that it’s at times comical rather than suspenseful.  This organization can get two federal agents to quit their jobs, create fake documents, and fly to Alex’s base of operations in a ruse to recover a saboteur, but EI apparently has no competent agents of its own to send in to finish off the job.  This makes little sense.  Meanwhile, Alex and his engineering team can solve complex problems in days, can manufacture sophisticated parts for the project in weeks, and can implement new back-of-a-napkin plans whenever needed.  Suspension of disbelief as to the underlying tech doesn’t mean that the reader can accept any plot device that seems impossible.  (It’s also implausible that the chief project engineer and his primary deputy would be personally diving (alone) to inspect a sabotaged bit of underwater equipment, fighting off shark attacks in the process, rather than sending in one of the 2000 other employees who are on the project payroll.)  There’s an attempt to drag in a corrupt official of a rogue foreign government, but that, too, fails to hit the mark.

In the end, the story has a good premise, but the promise of the premise is never completely fulfilled.  There are some good sequences here, but the quality writing is wasted while the reader waits for the next important plot development that either never comes or proves to be disappointing.  It is, apparently, very hard to make a story about a construction project edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, which is too bad.

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