, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jack Williamson was one of the old Gernsbackian crowd of SF writers, from back in the glory days of Amazing and Astounding in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Williamson sent in for a free copy of Amazing Stories, became inspired by A. Merritt’s serial novels, and was selling his own stories within a few years. Williamson could write solid tales in the vein Hugo Gernsback wanted: combining fantastic science with dashing and derring-do amongst the stars. His biggest flaw was that his work couldn’t evolve, stuck in the trappings of the ’30s. By the ’50s, the field was dominated not by space opera and each author’s new science theories but by hard, cold Science Fact; Williamson was a dinosaur trying to eke out existence in a world of Campbell’s hard science.

It’s no surprise that after writing The Reefs of Space in the 1950s, he couldn’t find an outlet: it was based on the “steady state” theory of the universe by Fred Hoyle—a rejection of the “big bang” theory—and by the social works of Walter Prescott Webb.  From Williamson’s own autobiography:

Webb saw all our precious freedom in danger now with the closing of the Earth’s frontiers. The reefs of space, formed between the stars by the steady creation of new matter as the universe expands, could open new frontiers, rich with limitless freedom.

Williamson knew Hoyle’s theory was obsolete when he wrote the book, but that didn’t dissuade him from using it symbolically; still, what made for thrilling reading did not endear itself to a genre then fascinated with accurate (and hopefully prophetic) science. In the early ’60s, however, things had loosened up a little. Frederik Pohl somehow got wind of the story, and had it serialized in his magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction, the experimental little brother of Galaxy, starting in July of 1963. The next year, it was published in novel form. The year after saw another Hoyle-based novel, and a few years later, a third. By all accounts, the writing went something like this: Williamson would write the first draft, then Pohl would do the second whilst editing it for publication.

Thus, the Starchild Trilogy, three loosely-connected books existing in the same universe some generations apart. While written in the ’60s, they read more like mid-’50s action-espionage stories… you know, like the early works of Philip K. Dick and Pohl and many others at the time, where a protagonist dashes through a series of interesting scenes, over a shallow plot, past a number of interesting concepts or ideas, around the occasional Twilight Zone-style shock! twist, so he can reach the end and get the girl.

Also: these books had a series of amazing cover art by Jacques Wyrs for their Ballantine paperback editions. Whatever else, they’re damn pretty to look at. I’m a sucker for the old Science Fiction Book Club editions that say things like “trilogy” or “collected series,” so I read this strange and wiry abomination:

SFBC – 1977 – illo by Gary Viskupic.

The Reefs of Space (1964)

Ballantine Books – 1964 – illo by Jacques Wyrs. A wonderful cover, very colorful and evocative.

Our hero is Steve Ryeland, brilliant scientist and former Party official, now downgraded to Risk (as in, security) by the authoritarian Plan of Man. See, in this future, mankind needs a giant authoritarian Planning Machine in order to save itself from its worse impulses; this Machine’s orders are undertaken by a select few Party higher-ups, answering to the Planner, the man who reads and translates the Machine’s ticker-tape commands. Steve now goes about his daily life fitted with an explosive collar, which could detonate any time the security guards wish it, or if he doesn’t check in every few hours. He also has amnesic gaps in his memory.

Still a brilliant scientist, he’s sent off to create a “jetless drive” for the Plan to conquer space with; the specifics are for him to determine. A chance meeting on a subterranean rocket subway with The Planner and his daughter, Donna Creery, takes things in a different direction. Steve ends up escaping into the wilds of space, where he finds creatures and “reefs” living at the fringes of society. The reefs are made of “space coral,” formed by a stream of steady-state hydrogen atoms and Fusorian microbes. These Fusorian creatures have reaction-less modes of transport—Steve’s “jetless” drive!—and are used as mounts by Reefers, a group best described as a cross between Libertarians and early Americana pioneers, exiles and rebels hoping to strike back at the Plan of Man.

Steve is then embroiled on a quest to free humanity from the Plan of Man; the only other major non-spoiler event is that he ends up in the “living body bank,” a prison island paradise where Risks are sent to live out their last days, until their organs are harvested for a Party official in need. (This has the unseemly realization that nobody’s actually met anyone who acquired parts from the body bank.) There’s some other interesting ideas and twists, and a few more ideas I’ve probably forgotten, but I’ll leave those for the readers.

Ballentine Books – 1973 – illo by Jacques Wyrs.

I thought the writing load between Williamson and Pohl wasn’t bad; the ideas feel pure Williamson—a lot of “gee-whiz, that’s cool but scientifically improbable, just roll with it because it’s kind of fun” ideas—while on the writing side, neither author outshines the other. Pohl isn’t a bad writer all the time, and since he’s working on Williamson’s ideas, he has an established baseline to build on. The one thing to note: our good friend sexism has returned, in the stereotypical 1950s “man wants a girl because she’s pretty so she’ll fall for him in the end even though she’s headstrong and has no reason to” schtick.

Reefs of Space is a very straightforward, pulpy novel: bring down our bloated authoritarian overlords, in the ’50s action-espionage style. It has quite a lot of interesting ideas—the body bank, the secretive “junkman,” Risks, the reefs and its creatures, the Plan of Man. On the flipside, it’s short and predictable: there’s an evil empire to crush, a girl to win, all that jazz. It’s fun in its own right, with a lot of wild and cool ideas, but it’s far from a great novel. The writing and pacing doesn’t make it a standout, but its ideas sure do.

Starchild (1965)

Ballentine Books – 1973 – illo by Jacques Wyrs.

This novel has one of the greatest first chapters in the history of adventure science fiction: it showcases multiple groups across the Plan of Man galaxy, watching as the freaking sun pops out following up on a threat made by exiled Reefers. There’s a palpable sense of wonder as something that shouldn’t be possible happens, a lot of fear and tension emanating from the highest leaders and simple footsoldiers of the Plan of Man. “Ok,” I say, “That’s a promising beginning.”

Alas; the novel then breaks down into a re-hashing of the first novel. Its protagonist is Machine Major Boysie Gann, a blockhead who remains loyal to the Plan of Man until the last possible minute; he’s put in the Steve Ryeland role of causing the downfall of the Plan. After being captured by a group of Reefers, he’s sent back with their aforementioned ultimatum. Of course, he’s thrown into prison—contaminated by the enemy, Soviet style—and has to flee; the best plan he can come up with is to pretend to remain loyal. The rest is a simple retread on the first book’s premises: steady-state living reefs, evil Plan of Man overlords, downfall and freedom for humanity, hero gets the girl in the end, roll credits.

The irony here is that the first book had a very hopeful ending, which this book dashes to bits: instead of loosening its grasp, the Plan of Man latched on to its planets with a death grip. Someone even mentions that Steve Ryeland’s fate wasn’t the greatest, another kick in the pants. For the most part, the writing is on-par with the first—around average—though the ideas aren’t as creative, or are simple retreads on concepts raised in the first novel.

Starchild is a letdown, but it’s not as far removed from the first book as to be unlikeable: in other words, if you liked the first book, or at least didn’t think it was that bad, you’ll probably have the same opinion of this one. I’m not sure if it was meant to continue the first novel’s plot or replace it, since it does a much better job at the latter. Though either way, it’s inferior to Reefs. My recommendation: don’t read Starchild soon after Reefs of Space, since Starchild is a less developed version of the original.

Rogue Star (1969)

Ballentine Books – 1973 – illo by Jacques Wyrs.

Rogue Star doesn’t continue the previous books’ story, instead starting a new branch in the same universe, many generations later. Mankind has advanced itself to have more spaceships, colonies, a universalist star religion, and sassy artificial intelligences. In fact, the technological advances have led a pair of “scientists” to try out a weird experiment: following up on the previous book’s Fusorian beings and turning the sun off and on, these two doofs want to create their own sentient sun.

The scientists screw up and this rogue star absorbs one, acquiring a sexual fascination with their female hanger-on, Molly Zaldivar. Molly sends a quick message to her friend Andreas Quamodian, before being chased around by the childlike yet all-powerful star. Quamodian, light-years away as a Monitor of the Companions of the Star, a pseudo-scientific-religious group, takes off to help, because while he’s older and nerdy, he’s macking on Molly.

Each novel in this series has its quality dip by half; while the first book was entertaining, the second book was okay, and this one was painful. I ended up stopping in the middle of it in favor of re-reading the collected novels of Dashiell Hammett; the main reason I finished Rogue Star was that I’d forgotten to pack more than those two collections when I went on vacation. (From then on, I’ve always brought more books than I’ll be able to read.)

The problems with Rogue Star are manifest. The writing has taken a downward turn for the worse, and it feels a lot more like Pohl, who has the tendency toward capable ideas and dry, awkward, uninteresting prose. And the incomprehensible plot doesn’t mix well with its facile nature and poor characterization. The ideas here, which should be amazing hooks—sentient suns duking it out! A rogue star in love with a female human! It’s like King Kong, but with stellar bodies!—feel under-developed. It also takes too big a jump from the first two novels: screw the Plan of Man and world we’ve built up, we have this other idea we want to use, which fits the Hoyle steady-state theories, so let’s tack it on several dozen generations later. (Granted, I’d hate to see the Plan of Man holding on yet again, having been defeated twice already.)

The protagonist Quamodian rings Mary Sue like nobody’s business: I swear an early description puts him as an older, balding, homely fellow. He’s a wimpy bureaucrat who’s fallen for a pretty girl, hoping she’ll give up the handsome hot-shot who she was hanging with. (That’s actually easy for her, since that was the guy who got absorbed by the star.) Quamodian spends the entire novel running around after Molly—because he’s smitten, I guess—and whines whenever things don’t go his way. Of course he gets the girl, which is infuriating after how obnoxious he’s been. Quamodian is reckless, selfish, arrogant, whiny, and an all-around douchebag. (Having since read Jem, with its ensemble cast of douchebags on parade, there’s a reason I think there’s too much Pohl in this novel.)

Rogue Star is the weakest link in the Starchild trilogy; a shame, because it’s the one with some of the best and most creative ideas. This series, one of the few to delve into Hoyle’s obsolescent theories and run with them, had a lot of free reign in doing crazy stuff like sentient stars, and squandered many opportunities. It has little to do with the earlier books to boot. If you have to read an entire series to its conclusion when you start book one, skip this trilogy because of Rogue Star. It has few, if any, redeeming values, and I didn’t find it very entertaining, much less engaging… otherwise I wouldn’t have jumped ship in the middle.

By this point in the series, the authors have already written their evil empire/space liberation story twice, complete with trashy guy-gets-girl romance and a multitude of great ideas; here, they’re just getting rid of the space liberation plot and phoning in the great ideas. It’s hard to see where they were going with all of this, and even harder to give a hoot when the protagonist is an obnoxious klutz and his girl is a dithering damsel. The bottom line: avoid and ignore, unless you were blown away by the first two.

The Bottom Line

Despite the flaws, I actually enjoyed The Reefs of Space to a degree. It’s a fast paced little adventure, throwing interesting concepts at you faster than you can blink. It lacks character depth, instead having cardboard characters stumble along a plot from one set-piece to another, which is a problem, but a standard problem for action-adventure novels. And the science was always questionable, but that was part of the charm. Nothing stellar, but it’s passable entertainment; I wouldn’t say to search it out, but if you see it in a used bookstore and it sounds interesting, give it a shot.

Starchild blew me away with the first chapter: how do you one-up the first book? Take its universe and have the Reefers make the sun go off and on. Alas, it boiled down to a less-interesting rehash of the first book’s material, sans all the most interesting weird ideas. I don’t really see a point for it, considering this plot was supposed to have been wrapped up at the end of the first book; the authors felt the need to retcon the happy ending in order to have a sequel. It’s not as well done, and is an echo of the first novel, which wasn’t amazing to begin with. But while Starchild isn’t good, it isn’t terrible, just a few steps below Reefs.

Rogue Star was one of the most banal books I’ve ever read; despite advancing the continuum, and adding in a slew of fascinating concepts, it’s locked itself to some horrible feats of writing: bad Mary Sue protagonist, lifeless characters, a gibberish plot, the lack of focus or a goal. And while it’s not a rehash of the same material—no Fall of the Plan of Man, Volume III—it has little to do with the series. The novel meanders around in a drunken stupor until, thankfully, the conclusion. Rogue Star irks me for its wasted potential: the concept of a sentient star is perfect for this kind of trashy adventure SF, yet the novel ends up less a fun adventure and more a schlocky B-movie.

As a whole, the trilogy isn’t that bad, but it could have been a lot better. Rogue Star drags down the overall quality, which was never that high to begin with. The novels are somewhat stand-alone, with a few slight references in Starchild to Reefs, so that might be a plus. Around average for ’50s-’60s-style adventure SF, though, of course, that means there are better novels in the genre out there. The Stars My Destination for one. Anything by Leigh Brackett for another.