Review of "Starswept" by Mary Fan
How I Got this Book
I bought the Kindle edition of Starswept at the regular price of $3.99.
In the near future, humanity makes contact with an advanced, benevolent, telepathic alien race. Unfortunately for Iris Lei and the other characters of Starswept, this isn't the utopian, idealistic world of Star Trek. Earth is a crappy place to live, with automation technology rendering many humans jobless and producing a small, powerful elite. The only thing of value that humans can sell to the the aliens, the Adryil, are their performing arts. 15-year-old Iris attends an elite art academy. She competes with many other teenagers for their only chance to make a good living: to be chosen to work as performers on the Adryils' planet. One night, Iris inexplicably encountered an Adryil boy, Damiul, who snuck onto her campus. Shenanigans occur, kisses are exchanged, and worlds are changed.
First, I'm very impressed with Mary Fan's future dystopian world. Unlike the typical YA worlds, there are no overtly oppressive government ruled by a bloodthirsty tyrant (Hunger Games and its copycats) nor are evil monsters/aliens taking over. Instead, the main problem is more vague - and more real. Robots are cheap and effective, rendering many human work obsolete. Elite humans use this to their advantage, forming a vast number of poor who must work for pittances or try for risky opportunities such as competing to perform for the Adryil. The "bad guys" are not a single evil person or even a single evil supernatural beings - rather the antagonists are economical and political in nature. Such complex social commentary are rarely seen in YA genre. During the Cold War, sci-fi writers deal with themes such as nuclear annihilation. Mary Fan expertly discusses the ills of our current world: de-industrialization/automation, immigration, and inequality.
As someone who writes paranormal romance, it may appear surprisingly to say that the romance between Iris and Damiul wasn't the most striking aspect of Starswept. This is not saying that the romance was bad - in fact, I love the fact that (unlike Twilight and its copycats) Iris has plenty of agency in their relationship.
The best, most striking part of Starswept is the competition in this art school for jobs. I believe this novel presents (whether intended or not) the best allegory for American football. Think about it:
- Teenagers from underprivileged backgrounds knew that, in an unfair economic system, the only chance to be rich is to participate in an intense competition.
- Schools and coaches exploit the unpaid talents of the young competitors.
- The lucky few "turn pro", while most participants leave school without adequate education and any viable job opportunities.
- Even for the few that became professionals, they are exploited by working for teams controlled by wealthy elite and endure permanent brain damage.
All of that applies to American football and the performing arts in Starswept.
The only significant flaw with Starswept is the world building. Ironically, unlike most YA novels, it's the not world building of alien/fantasy societies that's the problem. Mary Fan did excellent job (just look at the huge glossary of Adryil words!) of building a complex alien world. There are great descriptions of Iris's school, but I would prefer some more world building of Earth itself.
5 of 5
A great first novel in a great YA/sci-fi series
Sci-Fi/Fantasy Hardness Scale
quartz (7 of 10)
Starswept, with standard sci-fi tropes such casual interstellar travel or telepathic aliens, would normally qualify as soft sci-fi. But the novel makes up with very, very hard "social fiction". The impact of mass automation and alien contact on Earth's economics and politics are extremely good - and extremely relevant.