Feintuch, David. Challenger’s Hope.

NY: Warner Aspect, 1995.

This is the second volume of the “Seafort Saga,” featuring young Commander Nick Seafort of the UN Naval Service in the late 22nd century, and it’s natural to compare it with the first volume, in which an eighteen-year-old midshipmen suddenly finds himself in command of — and responsible for — a passenger-carrying warship. Nick triumphed over a long list of a wide variety of adversities on that first voyage, even while developing a pretty low opinion of his own abilities.

This time, he’s sent out with a much smaller sloop and the rank of commander (well, he’s still only twenty-one), as part of a flotilla under the command of an nightmarish admiral, heading for the cilony world of Hope Nation again. At least this time, he’s able to take along his new, pregnant wife. They expect to run into the “goldfish” — the blobbish and very lethal aliens Nick himself discovered in the first book. And they do, in fact, have to fight the aliens a couple of times when they come out of FTL drive — and the admiral runs for it. Then, at the next stop, his own small flagship being disabled (and no longer capable of FTL), he takes over Nick’s sloop, dumps everyone he doesn’t want to bother with on his own broken vessel, and takes off, vaguely promising to send help.

Nick is essentially marooned, with only his least experienced midshipman, a drunken chief engineer, the absolute dregs of the crew, and a batch of elderly civilian passengers. And also a couple dozen “transients” — the homeless street people whom the government back home has decided to force into becoming colonists. The latter are mostly illiterate, have only contempt for authority, and speak a nearly incomprehensible pidgin dialect. On ordinary engine power, and even after they exhaust their fuel supply boosting their velocity to one-quarter light-speed, it will still take the little ship some seventy years to return to Earth. But what else is there to do except make a start? Even though they’ll probably starve to death in a few months? And what should he do about the mutineers, who have had enough?

The problem is, Nick can’t conceive of managing his vastly changed command in any way but the Navy way. He can’t accept civilian volunteers, for instance; they must be impressed into the crew. And then all Naval courtesies and traditions must be observed. He drives everyone to the point of exhaustion with drills that will never be needed. He alienates his midshipman, the chief engineer, and the few possible friends he had managed to acquire from among the passengers. He becomes stiffly arbitrary in his actions, is frequently enraged, and turns to corporal punishment at the least excuse, which isolates him even further. And then there are his own personal tragedies, with which he is not very successful in dealing.

In fact, Nick’s personal disintegration is far more extreme than was caused by his similar experiences in the first volume. It’s no wonder everyone hates him and opposes him. In fact, past a certain point, it’s difficult for the reader to sympathize with him. And when the ship and its people are saved — as you knew they would be — it’s due entirely to a deus ex machina. It’s not a bad story — mostly — but I can’t say it’s as good as the first one.

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