I bought this in the summer of 1977 and while I don’t remember buying it I do remember reading it next to Columbia Lake at the University of Waterloo. I think the lake had been closed to swimmers 1 by then but maybe we dropped by to hang out next to it on the bank.
What impressed me at the time about this book was the sweep of history, as the immortal protagonist witnesses a thousand years of history. Why it was this book that struck me that way and not, say, the Foundation series I am not sure but it could have been that Foundation changes points of view as it changes eras.
The fix-up novel jumps forward through time, skipping centuries between the sections as though it was composed of a series of linked novellas:
We begin on a backwater world whose settlers have fallen into feudalism, as so many settler worlds do. Steven Dalt is a problem solver and he is visiting this world to recover a missing experimental starship brain, lost in an apparent mishap. An encounter with a raiding party sends into a cave for refuge despite the fact that all the caves on this world have alarets living in them and as the saying goes, “of every thousand struck down (by alarets), nine hundred and ninety nine will die.”
When Dalt regains consciousness, he discovers that he is that one in a thousand who does not die from having an alaret fall on his head and infiltrate his nervous system and in fact he can expect to live a very, very long time because he now has a symbiont rather like the one from Needle who is able to fiddle details of Dalt’s biochemisty and anatomy to keep him alive indefinitely. The cost is a running commentary from his symbiont, Pard.
With Pard’s help, Dalt finds the missing brain, only to discover that it has become telepathic and intelligent and it has no desire to return to the life of a piece of experimental equipment that will no doubt be dismantled at the end of the program. In an act that they probably regret later on, Dalt and Pard decide to leave the Brain on its backwater world, free to subtly influence the locals towards a more advanced society.
Heal Thy Neighbor:
Two centuries later, Dalt has come to terms with being ageless, reinventing himself every so often to escape the sort of close attention I will be mentioning when I get to Methuselah’s Childen. This life takes him to the Libertarian world of Tolive, homeworld to the LaNague after whom the primary human interstellar nation of this time is named. Sadly for poor LaNague, the star worlds like the idea of a union but didn’t care for his more extreme ideals and so Tolive is seen by the rest of the LaNague Federation as an odd world of political and other sorts of deviates.
At first Dalt is repelled by the excesses of Tolive – free access to drugs, a wide assortment of perverse porn and the usual public beatings so dear to Libertarians - but the planet gradually grows on him, not least because he has an eye on one of the more attractive locals.
For reasons none suspect, humans at this time are subject to something called the Horrors, fits that leave the victims comatose. Treatment is ineffective and it cannot help that nobody has any idea what the root cause of the Horrors is.
A side benefit of the symbiosis between Dalt and Pard is a powerful telepathic ability, one that allows the pair to understand that the true nature of the Horrors and to cure them. Dalt decides to stay on Tolive to use his abilities to save the victims of the Horrors. He enjoys enough success at this to become a figure of legend, even a god to some.
Even this life eventually palls and so Dalt decides to step back into the shadows.
Centuries pass. The tension between moustache-twirling villains who want a highly centralized system of government and decent people who prefer a more open system turns into open conflict and civil war. The alien Tarks decide to take advantage of this by unilaterally declaring themselves the allies of one side so they can snap up territory during the invasion; this has the effect of unifying humans in a grand, and I quote, “jihad” against the Tarks.
The conflict gutters down and Federation recongeals into a single whole but not a very healthy one.
Heal Thy Nation:
Dalt, now quite wealthy but also jaded and bitter, is approached by a young idealist upset over the long, slow decline of the Federation. Dalt has turned into a toxic old grump, much to the distress of Pard, but he is talked into visiting the Federation’s seat of government and we see that indeed it is dying of a plague of indifference.
A two-fisted tale of political reform and bold outreach programs might have been diverting but also quite unpublishable in the traditional Sfnal venues and so what we get instead is an answer to where the Horrors come from, in the form of a series of raids carried out by mysterious alien soldiers. Dalt is convinced to take part in the resistance when he sees a small boy murdered during a raid. As it turns out, his psychic talents make him and Pard Humanities only hope against what lies on the far side of the intergalactic hyperspacial tubes.
People who wondered about my reference to The Theory of Island Biogeography a few days ago may be interested to know that this was the novel that prompted it. Earth is off-stage but seen as overpopulated and therefore homogenous, a world of interchangeable second-handers, while the many worlds of the Federation draw strength from diversity and the lack of an interstellar culture, in much the same way New York City is a gray tapestry of uniformity next to the bewildering variety of small towns across the Great Plains.
It might have helped if there was much evidence of diversity beyond Tolive’s position as the World of the Libertarians but perhaps the brevity of the novel is to blame here.
Speaking of diversity, there are not a lot of physical descriptions in this but there’s about as much evidence that the star colonies drew from all the nations of the world as there is in Firefly. In the novel’s defense, it was written and the first part was published about half a decade before
Why is there no science fiction written by Eastern authors? (Assuming Russia and Japan are Western nations.) Because Eastern cultures are a-scientific. They will get to the stars aboard Western ships — no matter who builds them.
Was published in the letter column of the same venue that published “Pard” and a rich setting full of Changs, Akereles and Guptas probably would not have been deemed acceptable for Analog.
I once snorted derisively at a passage in Wilson’s Soft in which he talked about trying to introduce libertarian themes in a subtle way but in the decades that followed I have come to regret that snort. In the proper context – in contrast to the works of such libertarian and Objectivist luminaries as L. Neil Smith, Ayn Rand and John C. Wright – Wilson is pretty low key in the way he presents his libertarian ideals. The idea that the Planet of the Libertarians could be a backwater living in peaceful co-existance with worlds of quite different political views is very unusual for libertarian SF, which usually prefers either Total Victory Over the Unbelievers or a state of perpetual war between the One True Way and the hordes of degenerate second-handers.
I found this a lot thinner than I remembered it, which makes me sad. I think part of the problem is the length or rather the lack of it. A thousand years in about 200 pages means five years per page and not much space to develop any given period. This is one of the rare cases where longer might have been better. Still, the LaNague stories - five novels and a collection’s worth of shorter works - were why I read Wilson and when he moved on to the far more lucrative world of Repairman Jack he lost me as a reader (but gained so many more that I cannot fault the move).
Healer won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award and I believe can be legally purchased here.
There was a near-drowning incident where two kids wading across the shallow, artificial lake found where the old creek bed ran. My older brother was the one who realized their childish screams of glee were actually two kids screaming as they drowned.
The lake may have also been closed because it was a rich soup of water and duck poop.