The name Brian Ball resonates next to nothing, probably because his total science fiction output so sparse: his bibliography is dominated by a pair of Space: 1999 novels and a half-dozen DAW paperbacks penned in the 1970s with titles like Planet Probability, Regiments of Night, The Probability Man, and this one, Singularity Station. But just because something isn’t familiar or remembered doesn’t mean it’s bad; I’ve read some miserable stinkers penned by (so I’m told) some of science fiction’s best authors, and the reverse is equally true. Over at his blog, Potpourri of SF Literature, Mike2theD called Singularity Station “the Cadillac of pulp science fiction,” which was enough to get my attention; as fate had it, my local paperback hub had a copy for fifty cents stuck in the unchanging mire of its vintage science-fiction section. With that glowing review, and that low low price, how could I go wrong?
Al Buchanan was the captain of the Altair Star, until it headed straight into the Jansky Singularity. Since the robotic navigators could not imagine or register the singularity, they refused to acknowledge any reason to change course. In the end they ejected the frantic Buchanan from the ship (along with the rest of the bridge control section), leaving him the sole survivor of the wreck.
Three years have passed, and Buchanan’s now the prime candidate for the Jansky Singularity Station—a custom-built rig capable of surviving the singularity’s pressures and pulses, so that its single human and robot crew may observe it. Buchanan’s so desperate for the command that he’s ended up driving away his recent love, Liz Deffant, a fact he doesn’t realize until it’s too late. Meanwhile, the flustered Liz books passage home on the first ship she can—prison vessel ES 110, which happens to be carrying the cyberneticist Maran, whose grisly experiments attempting to unlock the potential of the human mind have earned him a fearsome reputation.
So, the novel follows two alternating story-lines. First is Buchanan’s slow but steady progress to see the fate of the Altair Star and the other ships caught by the massive singularity. The second is much more thrilling: Liz’s attempts to survive as Maran breaks out and gains control of the prison ship’s robotic guardians. And, needless to say, the two plots crash into each other for the book’s climax.
For a relative unknown who wrote a mere handful of books, Ball is an amazing author. His prose is clear and concise, both in the solitary wonder of Buchanan’s glimpses into the singularity, and the genuine suspense of Liz on the ES 110. Truth be told, there’s only one word I can use to describe the novel, and that would be gripping: jumping between two protagonists and two plots was awkward at first, but the novel gained momentum and tension and became something I loathed to put down. Events happen at a rapid pace, and the momentum increases through the end, keeping me wide-eyed in rapt attention. Not kidding, this is one arresting novel; I tagged it with “thriller,” didn’t I? An unrelenting plot filled with unending development.
The book also raises some interesting concepts between its gripping action. Foremost is the capacity of these artificial intelligences to think and reason versus their ability to imagine; both the loss of the Altair Star and the capture of the ES 110 is due to the inability of the robots to comprehend the situation as the human crew does. Buchanan hates the robots for their inability to see that what is imagined (the unreal), but space travel has developed to the point where robotic navigators are the norm.
Intelligence is also a major theme on the prison ship with the mad scientist Maran, who foreshadows the Hannibal Lector-style intelligent, genteel maniac. Maran rationalized that since humanity is alone as an advanced life-form in the universe, it must also be unique, and thus the “great mystery of the universe” would be to unlock the potential of the human mind… eventually resorting to brute force and sadistic surgeries to rush this “unlocking.” He also talks about himself in the third-person, so I guess we know he’s eccentric, and has pseudo-psychic powers in his uncanny charisma and ability to give instant Stockholm Syndrome to the otherwise resourceful Liz Deffant.
Early on, much is made of Buchanan’s hatred of the robots’ inability to function as humans and consider the irrational—the improbable—but I never felt his character relay that dislike at all. Instead, it left my wondering why anyone would continue to use these robot navigators since the Altair Star incident exposed some clear defects in the system—to say nothing of Maran using his crazed brilliance to overcome the thinking machines on the ES 110, a seemingly impregnable prison ship, and re-write himself in as their commander. Truth be told, the ending wraps the theme up in a rewarding fashion, but I’m still not convinced the robotic navigators aren’t all just moronic calamities waiting to happen—I spent too much time following plot developments caused by flaws in their programming (lack of foresight for Buchanan’s navigators, and in the case of Maran, the ease in which the security systems are confused and reprogrammed).
This was one of the most exhilarating books I’ve read this year; not at all what I expected for fifty cents, but it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised. What makes the book better is that is has the stock elements of pulpy SF—robots, black holes, mad scientists—but uses them in a smart and mature fashion. If you want a riveting little action novel from the 1970s, track down this book. This is why I read obscure vintage SF: to find those masterful, underrated gems that have fallen by the wayside. And if “masterful, underrated gem” isn’t an accurate description of Singularity Station… then you and I share totally different tastes.