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by Robert J. Sawyer

Starplex, by Thornhill, Ontario writer Robert J. Sawyer, involves the discovery of a new alien race and an apparently abandoned network of “shortcuts” – hyperspace portals that allow spacecraft to whisk about the universe. Sawyer, whose novel The Terminal Experiment picked up the 1995 Nebula Award (science fiction’s Academy Award) for best novel, has proven to be very good at taking well-plowed science fiction themes and giving them a new twist – as he does in Starplex.

Man-meets-alien has been done and done again by science fiction writers but Sawyer keeps it fresh. His lead character becomes the first human to meet a member of an alien race. But instead of giving the welcome-to-the-brotherhood-of-species speech, he talks about his midlife crisis and wanting to have an affair with a younger woman. Then, something totally unexpected starts popping out of the shortcuts – items that suggest something is terribly amiss in the universe.

These kind of unexpected twists keep the plot moving briskly, but Sawyer is able to do this while raising intriguing philosophical issues. He tosses out theories on the nature of dark matter (we know the universe has mass we can’t see, which has been dubbed “dark matter”) and on why we die at a certain age.

Sawyer’s prose is not particularly concise and his characters have paint-by-number personalities, and he periodically gets carried away describing the nuts and bolts of his universe: at one point he spends several eye-glazing pages describing newly discovered types of components in protons and neutrons.

But these indulgences are rare and the strength of the plot in Starplex and Sawyer’s cosmic concepts allows you to forgive the book’s weaknesses. Starplex is a swift, inventive, enjoyable book.