Off on a Starship (2003)

This story was my introduction to William Barton, which in hindsight was a bit of luck. His other work is just as brilliant, but not the most inviting. Off On a Starship is playful and optimistic, yet still exhibits the usual elements of Barton’s fiction. An overall obsession with sexuality, a deep probing of the main character’s mind and some neat golden age tropes (the vanished space empire) combined with updated physics.

In many ways, it’s a science fiction geek’s wish-fulfillment. A young science fiction reader who’s socially isolated enters a unmanned space probe and is whisked away to the remnants of a depopulated space empire. There he forms a sort of bond to a robot, who, trough various updates, becomes more than just a friendly companion. Together they try to find out what happened to the space empire and how to reach Earth.

The story excels both in its character-driven moments as well as the plot-driven parts. On the character level, it’s a sort of coming-of-age story, though not with any obvious life lesson beside screwing someone can be fun. But despite or because of its lack of obvious lessons, Barton manages a realistic impression of a young boy growing up. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but neither does he judge his behavior. And for those who prefer a little bit of plot, there’s the intriguing mystery of the lost empire (aptly titled so by the main character).

It’s not too hard to find good stories, even among all the stuff that gets published. But great stories, those that stay with you and who you remember even years later; they are rare. They manage to capture an ephemeral moment, like in this case the dreams of your youth (if you’ve read a massive dose of science fiction). Go one a starship, live among the stars, have adventures. All those dreams, not yet tainted by the experience that age brings. It’s wonderful when, for at least a while, you can still feel it.