Instead of a square-jawed space hero–such as the impetuous ex-military second in command DeWitt–or a square-jawed, reluctant yet capable science hero–such as the commander, Christiansen–this one stars (geddit? Stars? Sleep deprived me slays me) a nerdy academic without even the past background of baseball or football scholarships. He’s not even a physicist or a mathematician or an engineer–he’s a linguist: Robert Fairlie.
Why has a linguist been lured out to Washington under the pretense of headlining a conference at the Smithsonian, greeted by military security, and then slapped on a supersonic jet to New Mexico, at a time when it appears the greatest problem of the age is diplomatic?
The Other Side has been complaining about the American moonbase in Gassendi Crater–complaining that no neutral inspections have been allowed and it is obviously therefore a military installation.
It is a military installation.
It was not built by the Americans.
Thirty thousand years have passed since Gassendi Base fell, in the midst of a doomed evacuation; and after it was broken, it was stripped, the machines destroyed, the weapons confiscated, the dead–removed. Only words remain, spoken–or sung–and written. And, naturally enough, it turns out that at least one of the written texts contains, presumably, the entire instructions to build a functioning starship. Well, progress was fast during the 1950s. And, as youngest and most successful of the linguists, Fairlie is on board when it ion-beam propels off for Altair.
He’s not a space hero; he’s not a soldier or an adventurer or even just lacking in imagination. He’s scared stiff. But he’s going to have to find it in himself to stand up, not only for the sake of Earth and the crew, but for the (SPOILER, yeah right, as if) all too human Vanryn of Altair. You see, the commander, Christiansen, is a level-headed and thoughtful man, who has considered the impacts of their recent discovieries to men–to America–to Earth. He also has a weak heart (literally, not metaphorically.) Meanwhile, the second in command, DeWitt, is a fanatic, single-mindedly obsessed with the fact of this new technology and the thought of the stars. But DeWitt is also a strong man–strong enough at every stage of the plot to push through objections, to decipher, uncover, build, to aim for the stars, and–at almost every stage–to hit them. Is he, however, strong enough to throw his weight around against the Vanryn? When the weight of thirty thousand years’ traditions, an ancient fear, and the merciless prohibitions of the ancient enemy are against him, will DeWitt conquer? Or can he be stopped–in time?
The Vanryn were once a proud people, whose dream and aim and thought were the stars. But the battle with the Llorn broke their ambition and their will. They are a peaceful–an aimless, and passive–people now, without technology, or weapons, electricity–or spaceships. Over the millenia, they have even convinced themselves that this is what they always have and must desire. For the fear of the Llorn still resides among them. And now the Earthmen have come through the stars and broken the commandment of the Llorn!
So, not even the nubile star girl is particularly friendly, this time.
Will DeWitt succeed? Or–will the Llorn come again to Ryn, cloaked in their cold shadows and fear? And when they come–what will they do?
Authors usually have a stable of character types that they rely on for their stories. The barbarian warrior. The laughing, dangerous minx. The tall, laconic, green-eyed man with an unspoken past and enormous strength and hidden powers. The Competent Introvert. The superman whose powers place him apart from humanity, who loves and values people but cannot join them.The despicable SOB who exists to be despicable and provide catharsis by being disposed of horribly, either by chance if the heroes can’t get their hands dirty, or more satisfyingly by them if they can. (This one in particular is a pet peeve of mine.) Note that none of these are actually bad, if your skill level is high enough to make the plots interesting and the characterization flow naturally within the structure of that plot. I don’t think I’ve ever complained about a Zelazny hero being really tall, really strong, and extremely sarcastic.
But to continue: some authors can create many, complex, varied characters with each new book. Some, on the other hand, are bound to stick strictly and only to their little repertoire of archetypes, which can sometimes work just fine but sometimes also be wearying and predictable; it just depends on the skill level. Some authors, however, have or develop the ability to use their repertoire in a different way–to tell stories from non-standard points of view (such as the love interest narrating in The Grey Prince), or to make a putative hero into the villain, or something of that nature.
Something of that nature is done here–in fact, it’s a twofer. The book is not only narrated,as mentioned before, by the quiet, peaceful academic Fairlie rather than the starseeking DeWitt–[SPOILERS AHEAD] but the ultimate villainy is that same starseeking, glorious ambition that both DeWitt and the ancient Vanryn held–to conquer the stars at any cost, to place the imprint of the hand (boot?) of Man on every world in every system. The Llorn have no problem with other species’ space flights or colonizing other worlds; it’s the fact that men came on as though they had a right to those worlds that disturbed them.
Hamilton is critiquing the basis of his own genre and own work, and it’s an interesting thought. Can we trust the secrets of the universe to the impetuous heroes? Are immediate results all that matter? Is one man’s vision all that matters? What good is the will and the determination to crush opposition if there is no foresight or humanity beside it? Most of these questions are left open-ended in Fairlie’s mind, as the book ends with the party regrouping and preparing to attempt the return to ship and home.
The Llorn, meanwhile, are able to state their position in very straight terms: expand all you like, but mess with us or any other species, and we end you.
Humanity semper excelcior (or, in this cruder age: Humanity F*ck Yeah!) it is not–not really.
…they’ve got a point.
Highlights: Fairlie packing for the trip….what does one pack for a trip to Altair? Well, to start with, a shaving kit, toothbrush and aspirin. Better make it a big bottle….
– There’s a nice nod towards verisimilitude–the effects of unknown bacteria on a distant planet are considered and antibiotics are being administered. (Although really, pro-biotics would be a better choice, you’d think. Less chance of having a deleterious effect on the taker, not to mention how incredibly broad-spectrum these antibiotics would have to be to be useful.)
– Aral being the one to stab DeWitt, after he has forced her and her boyfriend into a number of dangerous situations and is trying to make them stay and face what for all she knows are the devils themselves–is appropriate but also a bit sad, given that at this point everyone realizes DeWitt is slightly crazy.
– Kipling is always appreciated.
Rated: These are the four that are never content,
that have never been filled since the Dews began–
Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the Kite,
And the hands of the Ape
And the Eyes of Man.