Book Review: Beyond Another Sun – Tom Godwin

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Pretty lame cover, too.

Beyond Another Sun is a 1971 novel by Tom Godwin–better known for his seminal Hard SF novella, The Cold Equations.

To save us all time right at the start: Beyond Another Sun lacks the gritty edge of the author’s better-known story, but it’s got some merits and a happy ending, not only for space scout hero and barbarian heroine, not only for the simple but rapidly-advancing natives, not only the nine million refugees on the fourteen colony ships trailing slowly behind the advance scout, but even also for the uncounted billions trapped on doomed Earth, hoping against hope for the discovery of a new world–in time.

And that’s pretty good work for a guy who spends most of his pagetime teaching the natives how to use kaolin filler in their paper mills and occasionally firing his blaster at things.

So, plot.

Earth is doomed. In less than twenty-five years, a rogue planet is going to enter the Solar System and collide with it. FTL travel exists, but is limited in range, and there are not–yet–any suitable host worlds to which the bulk of Earth’s population (billions, remember), can be evacuated. The refugee armadas have already embarked, with no idea about or sign of their final destination–only a hope. Advance scout Norman Gray flies ahead of the armada, searching. So far he has found only planets suitable as waypoints or harbors, such as the planet (uhhhh….Vala?), which has atmosphere, water, carbon-based plant life, and, oh yes, humans who look like us but have a lower technology level and whose religious sensibilities are prone to be impressed by flying machines from the sacred constellation.

I was actually kind of surprised to find this book was published in ’70s: that’s a Campbellian pulp-sciffy scenario on a platter, there. But there’s a measure of subtlety to this one, or at least, an unwillingness to engage with cliche.

The Vala are a preindustrial people who fight with knives, live in villages, and place high stock in the opinions of their priests…they are also highly pragmatic and also quite intelligent. Their world has been constrained to a single habitable valley, and their resources are running out. They are more than happy to accept the Earthman’s bargain: vaccines against the neurotoxic bloodsucker moths, flamethrowers to destroy them, diagrams and books for new technology and learning, locations of new ore deposits and the machines to mine them with–in return for allowing their world to become a way station for the aforementioned fourteen colony ships….and nine million Earth refugees aboard them.

Norman’s mission for Vala is a success–the ships are en route–and he should be preparing to leave. Only…there’s this girl, you see…and then, you see, the actual problem is: there’s this intensive system of mental conditioning that the Advance Scouts get put through that won’t allow them to stay homebound, that compels them to keep driving out, reaching for the unreachable stars…no matter how much they want to stay and no matter how hard they love.

The Cold Equations is cold, lean, ruthless. The problem with this book is that it’s not. Cutting down its length by a third or so–compressing the meandering and painstaking “teaching the natives” sequences in time-honored pulp-fiction fashion, to the bare essentials (“befriend native warrior. confront native witchdoctor/priest. defeat rival in knife fight. girl throws self at. what to do?”) would have been, yes, a bow to cliche, but a boon to the story. The meat of this story is the internal struggle of Norman Gray–a man who has been groomed to his starfaring role since boyhood, and who yet somehow has seen the chance for peace and a home. Will he continue, as duty and deep-ingrained compulsions require him to? Or will he stay with the simple yet beautiful native maiden? Spending more time brooding moodily over these questions, less time considering the logistics of printing and distributing copies of mining literature to the far-out villages, more time punching rival chieftains, and less time discussing history with the friendly priest, would have improved matters immensely.

On the subject of brooding: there is a certain amount of attention paid to the various psychological manipulations that went into the shaping of Norman Gray, Advance Space Scout….but comparatively speaking, it’s rather lifeless. Even when Norman gets into one of his Girl I Left Behind Me funks, it’s…kind of boring.

But it does have a happy ending.

So there’s that.

Rated: Gordon Dickson would have made this book so gritty you could use the pages for sandpaper.

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