Review: Starman’s Quest

Robert Silverberg
1958

I don’t have much time for Robert Silverberg’s books.  Admittedly I haven’t read many but what I have read has never really engaged me.  He seems to be a writer with many ideas, but with some kind of inability to bring them to deserving life on the page.  Two cases in point: ‘Kingdoms of the Wall’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.  In Kingdoms the protagonist scales a huge mountain and passes through different cultures and habitats on the way.  In Sailing to Byzantium, there is a sort of time-traveling party that jaunts from one civilization to the next having a good time.  Both cool concepts (the latter being based on a poem by William Butler Yeats), but neither left me satisfied.  Actually I really enjoyed Kingdoms when I read it about 15 years ago, but I wasn’t a ‘mature’ reader back then.  Or maybe I’m a snob now.  Dunno…

This book, Starman’s Quest, doesn’t satisfy me either, though there are a couple of interesting ideas presented.  The story is simple enough, I’ll outline it here and there’s not much danger of spoiling it for you as the outcome is telegraphed quite early on.

17 year old Spacer boy has twin brother who jumps ship on Earth.
Boy does an interstellar return run,  brother is now 9 years older.
Boy locates brother and shanghais him back on board.
Boy stays on Earth for 9 years and develops hyperspacial drive.
Boy employs the new technology to catch up to the ship.
Boy is now the same age as his twin, family is reunited and all are happy.

The story is not complicated, a very simple plot.  There are some shortcomings in the structure which I’ll talk about later, but there are a couple of cool ideas in the book.

The first interesting idea is the community of ‘Spacers’ – the crews of these interstellar ships.  Due to the supposed ‘Fitzgerald Contraction‘, Spacers live much longer relative to their planet-bound brethren.  A few weeks in space at near lightspeed can equal many years of ‘normal’ time.  Because of this Spacers have trouble adjusting to life between runs – the substantial societal and technological changes in their absence are difficult to cope with.  Existing in their own societies on board ship and in special enclaves at spaceports, they rarely interact with the general population.  Indeed, they also suffer a certain amount of discrimination.  Our ‘boy’, Alan, is only 17 subjective years old but several hundred objective years old…  or is it the other way ’round…  Anyway, this idea doesn’t require a leap of imagination or creativity to bring about, but the two different societies co-existing is a cool concept for a story.

The other interesting idea is the structure of Earth’s society at the time of the action.  Well, the structure of ‘York City’ at least.  There is a caste system in place operating in a kind of socialist police state.  It’s insinuated at various points in the book that the authorities brook no nonsense.  Citizens also have to wear, or are otherwise implanted with an ID chip.  People are born into ‘guilds’ that determine their method of income and place of residence.  For those who have no guild there is a ‘free’ guild.  One of the more respectable forms of income for members of this guild is gambling.  It isn’t portrayed as oppressive as it sounds, citizens have a decent amount of freedom and the tracking technology seems to be available to all if you want to locate somebody.

The structure and pacing of the book is not quite right.  The meat of the story should have been, I feel, in the development of the Cavour Drive.  We are introduced to interstellar propulsion early.  We learn the distinction between and the history of the slower-than-light ‘Lexman Drive’, and the theoretical and as yet undeveloped hyperspacial ‘Cavour Drive’.  We learn that Alan has a dream to develop the latter and open up the stars.  Yet the bulk of the book is dedicated to the location of his brother and his acquisition of the funds to facilitate development.  The actual development of the Cavour Drive is glossed over quite rapidly – only two chapters; a scant 8 pages were taken in locating the Cavour’s lost notes, the development and testing of the drive and the location and reunion of the family.

Something else that bugged me was the Rat character.  A small cutesy but very intelligent alien that could speak well.  It served as Alan’s conscience/advice dispenser.  Totally unnecessary I thought and I found it difficult to take seriously.  I can draw an unfavorable comparison to Heinlein here.  In many of his books he has a similar character – Willis in Red Planet and Lummox in The Star Beast to name two.  Alien characters that rarely verbalise but act as efficient sounding boards for the protagonists.  Admittedly, those two characters are crucial plot elements in those two books, but this makes the too-verbose Rat seem all the more superfluous.

Continuing the parallel with Heinlein, his 1956 book Time for the Stars has a similar theme in that a set of twins is separated by interstellar travel and suffer asynchronous aging.

I absolutely enjoy reading my Gnome Press books; I take great pleasure in the experience no matter the quality of the story.  I have to be a little harsh though and say that this book could should have been at least half again as long.  The final third of the book read like a slippery slope – it just kept gaining pace until it fell off the edge.  It began so well with those nice ideas looking for a suitable vehicle.  Pity the wheels fell off at the end.

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