We picked up a copy of Quas Starbrite (1981) as an act of ironic glee. Based on its cover (shocking) and its strapline, "A young star pilot battles a dark horde from beyond space", Anne figured this would be exactly the sort of book that we'd each read six pages of and then make a meal out of tormenting. Where exactly is "beyond space" anyway?
Against all odds, Quas Starbrite is actually pretty good.
The titular Starbrite is a cleft-chinned young space commander with a lousy desk job as aide-de-camp to the Commander of the Spaceforce of the Galactic Federation. He likes the cushy office, but he was a top cadet, dernit, and he wants to be out in the field, blasting through space and discovering new worlds. His opportunity arrives - kind of - when he's assigned as a military aide to a scientific research mission to the Nether Quadrant. Apparently there's been some sort of grumpy dissatisfaction with the colonists there, so he'll be tagging along to carry the bags of an intrigued sociologist.
Starbrite is initially a bit sulky, but feels better when he learns that his other companions will be Lyra, a violet-eyed, heartily-curved physicist and Adrian Jost, a legendary space commander.
The plot thickens pretty rapidly. The mission - theoretically routine - is plagued by sabotage. Someone is out to kill Lyra and remove the universe's foremost physicist into the field of "doing weird stuff with gravity". After Starbrite foils a few of the attempts, he discovers their source: CryKons of the Dark Horde! The Dark Horde is an intergalactic empire, ruled by the immortal cyborg emperor - KraKon! Despite their branding problem, they've actually got a good shtick. KraKon offers immortality to key figures within their target empires. Then, with their traitorous help, KraKon's Dark Horde pops through the nearest black hole and starts the destructin'. Surrender and be assimilated into the cyborg army (hmmm) or resist and be destroyed by planet-clearing gravity weapons!
With the Dark Horde revealed, everything zips into place. Starbrite and Lyla blast off to the remains of Old Earth (apparently it got pretty screwed up by the consumption of fossil fuels) to find gravity-science data & fight Dark Horde soldiers. They then blast off to an asteroid belt to find anti-matter & fight Dark Horde spaceships. Finally, they blast off to the black hole/stargate thing to find KraKon himself & fight his command squadron.
The pattern becomes very, very familiar. In all of these scenarios, a bit of hard sf is dribbled in through some lopsided conversation. "Gosh, Lyra, what is anti-matter?", the social scientist asks, only to be rewarded by two pages about inconveniently-explosive anti-atoms. Mr. Berry then puts [science] into practice - the protagonists are squashed by sf-gravity, exploded by sf-anti-matter and sucked through sf-wormholes. Mr. Berry does, however, have a pleasantly conversation tone of voice that, although he doesn't disguise the info-dump completely, he succeeds in making it less patronizing.
Mr. Berry's action is terrific and steals the show. Starbrite is introduced as an intuitive type - which allows him to explore the boundaries of every arena. From the first, desperate chase of a malfunctioning shuttle to the last, explosive combat with Dark Horde fighters, there's something almost shamefully fun about the rattle of laser-gatlings and the slow arc of starfighters flipping about in space. Again, Mr. Berry likes him some science, but it doesn't slow things down - if anything, the quick asides on space-radio and g-forces only add to the cinematic faux-realism of the book's many set-piece battles.
The book's two main flaws are the villain and the slightly ham-fisted inclusion of "Old Earth". KraKon is a big goofball - a shiny plastic cyborg with everything replaced except his all-too-human temper. He's not particularly bright and relies way too much on his human traitors rather than his all-powerful army of Dark Horde minions. His invasions need less faffing about and more planet-levelling. KraKon spends a lot of the book sulking and being perversely fascinated by Starbrite. His final moments in the book are classic fist-shaking/"Starbriiiiiiite!" silliness which undermine his status as the Conqueror of Galaxies.
Old Earth's clunky cameo is a false note for opposing reasons. If KraKon is scenery-chewing space-opera, Old Earth is tongue-in-cheek self-indulgence. The McGuffin-y scavenger hunt that leads Lyra and Starbrite to Earth is because "Old Earth" is still filled with the research and genius of the mid-20th century. And no matter how far humanity has come, the hard drives at the National Science Foundation will still have all the answers. This prompts a surreal little field trip (complete with exposition about melting ice caps and the remaining "troglodyte tribes of humans") that essentially amounts to walking down Connecticut Avenue and plugging in their space-iPods. If the Dark Horde weren't already there, ready to ambush, it would've been completely meaningless. As it was, it merely sounded like strange, contemporary aggrandizement. "Sure, they'll have light-fighter-star-drive-quantum-holographs in the 26th century, but, by gum, they'll still need our data!".
If you like your space opera long on science and short on character, there are worse places to start than Quas Starbrite. Mr. Berry explores a different theory in every chapter and demonstrates how each one can be put to practical use in fending off armies of cyborg invaders. A handy guide to the alien apocalypse and, even if the Dark Horde never shows, Captain Starbrite's space acrobatics are worth the price of admission.