For me, the best books grab you with a one-two punch. The first hit is from the cover: hey, hey, look at me, pick me up and think about paying money because I look awesome enough to read. This one did just that: I saw it in a SF cover art book, and wandered online to find out more. The art by John Schoenherr is evocative, with its twisted and wild ruins, somber colors, and the titular falling star far above the pair of humans. It’s trippy, somber, and expansive.
I liked the cover enough to spend a couple of dollars on it; the second punch—the one that got me to read it—was the back cover blurb. The back cover sells a fascinating book. (What can I say; I’m a sucker for Vancian dying earth tales, which the blurb on the cover compares the book to.)
A hundred thousand years from now, it was discvoered that a star was approaching the world on a collision course. Its discoverer, Creohan, figured there might be time to save the world if he could arouse everyone to the danger.
But the earth had become a strange and kaleidoscopic place in that distant era. Too many empires had risen and fallen, too many cultures had spread their shattered fragments across a planet whose very maps had long since been forgotten. People were too busy with their own private dreams to pay attention to one more alarm.
The story of Creohan’s effort to CATCH A FALLING STAR is one of John Brunner’s most colorful science-fiction concepts.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot. Creohan sets off to mourn the earth, but finds most people are either off wallowing in the pleasures of excess, or are “Historickers” busy enmeshing themselves in the near-pointless study of history. He does find a female compatriot, Chalyth, interested in mourning the earth’s passing, and the two set off to find a city more agreeable to mourning. They have the eventual realization that the world is bigger and older than they thought, and then try to find a civilization capable of turning aside a star. It’s a journey tale at heart, showcasing the world Brunner creates, the strange creatures inhabiting it, and the fellow travelers who go with Creohan and Chalyth across the future earth.
The Jack Vance influence is tangible; take his dying earth to its (illogical) extreme and you have Brunner’s version. There’s a lot of implied sex, booze, and narcotics floating around, a very gritty dystopia wallowing in its own excesses. There are humanoid “meat-creatures,” a living foodsource, raised by an inbred group of farmers who don’t even know if their toil amounts to anything; semi-self-aware plant houses; lost ruins and blasted craters; post-apocalyptic vikings; and cannibalistic ape-men, just to tip the iceberg. The influence of Tolkien is minimal—like most books of the era that mentioned Tolkien on the cover—though it is a lengthy journey, an epic quest which sees Creohan and Chalyth acquire a group of fellow travelers as they criss-cross the world.
Brunner’s prose is different from the other books of his I’ve read. It’s very stilted and riddled with confusing sentences, such as the first one:
Desperate for fear the whim that had made the man in gold accept his inspired half-true invitation might evaporate in face of his kind’s ineffable contempt for things of today, Creohan silently cursed the doorway of his house for being so slow to open and admit them.
Dude needs commas and periods to help separate his clauses. It doesn’t get much better until after a half-dozen five-page chapters, so this is a hard book to get into. I don’t remember Brunner’s prose being this stilted in his other books—it’s painful how awkward it can get. The style does work with the setting, once it balances itself out, and once it’s rolling there are few of those awkward slip-ups.
The journey itself is contrived: the group wanders from one event to another, in and out of danger, meeting new and strange creatures and cultures. That makes it a fun adventure book, because Brunner’s most interested in showcasing the denizens and settings of his future earth, and rewards the reader with plenty of imagination and the occasional action scene.
But don’t expect much development (except with one of the hangers-on, Hoo, former meat-creature farmer); the dialogue remains stilted and the journey’s path is always contrived. It’s also got the flaws of most Ace books: it’s slow, it’s short, and it’s shallow. These aren’t strong detractors; the worst would be the tepid writing and stilted dialogue, which can make the book turn tedious.
Catch a Falling Star remains shallow until the last few chapters, when Brunner delves into some deep philosophy on humanity. I don’t want to spoil things, but it relates to the human drive to grow, explore, take action even in the most dire situation, and make arduous journeys… the kind of things that put Creohan and Chalyth on this epic journey. In a time when our space programs are being mothballed, and our human curiosity for galactic exploration has become stagnated, I found it had an odd but powerful resonance.
Brunner originally published the novel as The 100th Millenium through Ace in 1959, nine years after Vance’s Dying Earth saw publication. It was polished, retitled, and republished as Catch a Falling Star in 1968, two years after Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld saw print. The Lord of the Rings had its infamous Ace paperback debut in 1965. (Coincidence? Or is that cover blurb just marketing?) I’m not sure what the expansion included, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out it was some of the more graphic and bizarrely weird details of the setting. Catch a Falling Star was reprinted by Ace in 1977, and Del Rey in 1982.
This is neither a great book nor a great Brunner—obviously, otherwise you would have heard of it, cropping up on the long list of Brunner’s masterworks. It is, however, passable pulp entertainment, despite its numerous flaws. Have you ever read a book that was riddled with problems, but at the end of the day, a book you ended up really liking for no discernible reason? That would be Catch a Falling Star for me. Once it got going I really enjoyed it; a cool setting, some great final chapters. It’s not outstanding, but it is entertaining, and could be worth looking into.