I happened across a mention of the “Worlds Apart” series in a posting on Baen’s Bar, from a reader who enjoyed them. Based on that reader’s description, I was intrigued—then I checked out the first book in the series, and was completely drawn in.
The “Worlds Apart” series by James Wittenbach currently consists of nine completed novels (out of a planned twelve) and three short stories, available for free download from the Worlds Apart website in DOC or RTF and PDF formats. Although Wittenbach has sold printed copies in the past, I have not been able to find anywhere on the site as it now exists that printed copies may be purchased.
The idea of space colonies setting out to discover what happened to their mother planet has been visited many times in science-fiction through the years—most obviously in Battlestar Galactica, of course. Nonetheless, when done well it has been one of my favorite SF themes—the rediscovery of lost knowledge, resumption of contact with lost civilizations, and solving of one of the greatest mysteries of the ages.
“Worlds Apart” could have been written with me in mind.
The premise of this space-opera series is that, around the year 7000 AD, two surviving human colony worlds have formed an unlikely partnership to explore out into the galaxy and find out why they haven’t heard a peep out of any other human planets in over 1,500 years. One colony, Sapphire, is made up of laid-back libertines with an aversion to politics and bureaucracy. The other, Republic, goes to the opposite extreme, being a rigid bureaucracy that thrives on politics.
Having somehow managed to avoid annihilating each other, the colonies ended up with no choice but to work together, and the crew of the fleet of exploratory ships is made up of citizens from both worlds. The series focuses primarily on one such ship, the Pegasus.
The culture clash between Sapphire and Republic sets up some interesting character conflicts—such as those between its straight-laced Republican first officer and its laid-back Sapphirean captain, a college chancellor and history professor with a fondness for alcoholic beverages and golf—but most conflict comes from how the ship interacts with the various colonies and other civilizations it encounters. As becomes apparent even within the first book, it is a nasty galaxy out there, with plenty of things inimical to human life.
The "Worlds Apart" books are written in a semi-humorous style, containing many jokes and references to other works of literature and pop culture. Sometimes large sections of books are devoted to setting up particularly egregious puns or references, but the humor is not as pervasive as in the works of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. The stories usually have a serious core, but there are always plenty of laughs along the way.
On the positive side, the stories are for the most part well-written and well-paced. The characters are three-dimensional and sympathetic (except when they are obviously meant not to be sympathetic) and the plots generally make sense. The mystery of what happened to the rest of humanity unfolds in an interesting and believable manner.
“Worlds Apart” was clearly planned as an epic saga from the beginning, with specific intentions for where it would go by the time it was over. This level of planning shows through mysteries and other subplots that are set up over time and play out over the course of several books. There is intricate plotting here, and it is very nicely done. There is also very good world-building—or, rather, universe-building. As with all good settings, it feels like a fully-realized universe—there is far more going on in the universe outside of what these stories are able to tell.
Still, it is easy to see why it had to be self-published. Long series are problematic for publishers; sales invariably fall off after the first few books. It would be almost unheard-of for any publisher to take a chance on a series this long from a first-time novelist, especially in today’s economy.
And the series has its downside as well. Because it is self-published (just like most fan-fiction), the books have not been professionally edited—and it shows. Just about every possible type of typographical or editing error can be found within these books: typos, misplaced apostrophes and other punctuation, homonyms, sentence fragments, calling characters by the wrong names, putting characters in the wrong places, incorrect italicization—you name it, it’s there. The “Worlds Apart” series is hardly unreadable, but it could still benefit greatly by a pass from a professional editor.
Another problem is that the books often have humorous or explanatory footnotes that are visible in the PDF version, but not in the RTF/DOC version (though this could be due to my using Wordpad to read them rather than MS Word). It would be nice if they were available in other, more widely-used e-book formats.
Also, when you go to download the books, try not to read too much from the download pages—they contain complete synopses of the story, not back-cover blurbs, and so give far too many spoilers away.
But despite these problems, “Worlds Apart” is deeply gripping, and I highly recommend it. I am glad it took me until 9 of the 12 planned books were complete before I discovered it. As it is, I will be impatiently looking forward to the appearance of the final three books in the series over the next two years.