The Stars in Shroud

Gregory Benford


I’ve never read the first draft of this – back when Now & Then Books was at 103 Queen South, Harry had a copy on the shelves for years and yet I was never quite inspired to pick it up. Perhaps this is because there were other books I wanted more but I think it’s because I knew Deeper Than Darkness was the earlier version of Stars in Shroud, a version that its author thought needed a rewrite and Stars is, sadly, full of interesting nuggets that are embedded in a crap sandwich.

Centuries in the future, after the Riot War killed almost all the “pure Americans” [p9] as well as the Negros [p73], Old Nippon established its hegemony [p14] and all Earth thus fell under the Mongol Empire [p169] .

Because the Riot War pretty much wiped out everyone outside a few pockets in Asia, “the last local area where the virtues of community dominated” [p169], doughty individualists have lost the war for the human spirit, pushed aside by an ethic that places a high value on conformity and getting along. Despite this essentially conservative way of life, the Empire has a high level of technology, one that includes both expensive faster than light ships and cheap Bussard ramjets, and an empire than spans almost a thousand parsecs.

Unfortunately for the Mongol Empire, a thousand parsecs is huge on the human scale but tiny on a galactic one and the Milky Way is old enough for empires far grander than anything the humans have thought of to have risen and then collapsed. While the first few alien civilizations the Mongol Empire ran into were assimilated easily enough, the Quarn are a different story. By the time the novel opens, the Quarn have unleashed a particularly nasty memetic weapon that exploits certain weakness in the human psyche; on worlds across the Empire and on Earth itself, civilization is crippled as violent agoraphobia spreads.

Ling Sanjen, being a half-breed white man, is at the bottom of the social ladder. Despite this he has worked his way up starship captain, albeit not of military ships. This put him in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of the people responsible for playing vector to the memetic plague (although not for lack of trying not to do this on his part) and one of the first victims of the plague on Earth. Disgraced, he lives in a cramped warrens; neither his unrewarding job nor his joyless marriage brings him much happiness.

When the Empire in the form of Ling’s former subordinate Tonji discovers that Ling has recovered from the Plague, they realize that he has the right combination of immunity, ability and expendability to stick with the important but low status job of overseeing the Lekki-Jagen system. Lekki is an F2 star orbited by Jagen, a neutron star, at just the right distance to make the pair a cheap source of delta-vee, the Flinger. Ramjets full of precious goods are warehoused there until a destination can be selected and FTL ships divert to the system to avoid paying the difference in velocity between stellar systems themselves.

Something that gets lamp-shaded early on is that the Flinger is both unlikely and short-lived and the odds that it would exist just at the right time for the Mongol Empire to take advantage of it are very, very low. Nobody takes the next step of “unless there was some causal link between the two.”

Lekki is also orbited by Veden, a world habitable enough for determined humans to have carved out a colony on it, at the cost of some inconvenient irreversible adaptations and while Lekki-Jagen is an important way station for the Empire’s economy, Veden is isolated and comparatively poor, home to what appears to be the principle surviving population of Indians, specifically of the Hindu (or “Hindic”) persuasion. The Empire doesn’t object too much to people choosing to be different as long as they do it out of sight.

Ling’s duties don’t seem to involve actually doing much but at least he is not willfully obstructive towards the locals; in fact, he can see a lot of positive elements to the local way of doing things, which is slow paced and low stress. He soon begins the rapid process of what Colonel Blimp types used to call “going native”, picking up a local mistress adept in the mysterious ways of Indian love-making and initiate in one of Veden’s many odd little cults.

Sadly, although “the Hindic peoples are always pacifists” [p106], the quiet social order on Veden begins to spiral into violence as soon as Ling arrives. While it’s reasonable to think Ling has successfully done to Veden what he helped do to Earth, the truth is more alarming: the Quarn know about the Flinger, and they already have agents on Veden. Worse, the Quarn know an awful lot about how the human mind works and the social structure on Veden makes it particularly vulnerable to an alien who can pose as a learned guru.

This was serialized in Galaxy during John J. Pierce’s run as editor. Galaxy was sabotaged by a picayune budget, which meant editors struggled to pay their writers and had little reason to stay if a better opportunity came along but despite the increasingly irregular publication schedule and increasingly unsteady hand at the tiller, I remained a steadfast fan almost to the end (I did not pick up Floyd Kemske’s single 1980 issue because I never saw it).

As it happens, this had elements I had (and probably still have) an irrational fondness for, like relativistic star flight. This was written pretty much as late as you could write stupendously capable Bussard ramjets. T.A. Heppenheimer’s “On the Infeasibility of Interstellar Ramjets” (Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 31) came out the same year Stars in Shroud was serialized; Heppenheimer rather inconsiderately came to the conclusion that Bussard ramjets would be many orders of magnitude better at radiating energy away than they would be at generating it from interstellar hydrogen. After Heppenheimer published, ramjets appeared increasingly infrequently in non-legacy settings and tended to be far more limited in their abilities than classic Bussard ramjets.

Trade in this setting seems to be driven in part by metalicity; many systems are less rich in heavy elements than the sun is, a pain for technological tool kits developed in the context of Earth. Finished goods also get shipped, which suggests to me a culture where technology changes only very, very slowly.

I believe the Flinger is inspired by Freeman Dyson’s “Gravity Machines”1. Contact binary catapults are potentially very useful but as the book points out, comparatively uncommon. Come to think of it, I bet Poul Anderson’s “Bitter Bread” was also inspired by that paper.

Speaking of Anderson, I wonder if the Quarn were in any way inspired by Anderson’s Alieriona, featured in Anderson’ Star Fox. The Alieriona have a ‘get off my lawn’ attitude towards younger civilizations a lot like the Quarn’s. The details of the Alieriona and the Quarn and the methods they use on the humans are very different, I admit.

One element I would not be surprised to learn came from Anderson is an awareness that planets are big and diverse (sadly, not a lesson that was extended to cultures). This should not be rare enough enough that examples are therefore praiseworthy but there you go.

Although Benford discusses the challenges of shipping in the context of a large interstellar empire and sublight ships, I fear that even if the ships themselves are nearly free, the time cost is a killer even for worlds comparatively close to the Flinger. The time cost does not apply to the FTL craft but there I think similar benefits (delta vees of a hundred or so km/s) could not be derived from less rare systems.

Benford devotes a fair amount of time to the problem of how to convert tardyons into tachyons without miniscule differences in transition smearing the ships over an unsustainably large volume. It’s not clear to me what the limits of the FTL drive are except “very fast” and “apparently more expensive than ramjets despite the time thing.” It’s my impression that tachyons are now considered a somewhat problematic idea not supported by the experimental evidence but they had a good run.

Benford tries hard to provide his novel with a higher level of prose than was common at this time for SF novels. If you read this, try not to keep an eye out for variations on “consummation devoutly to be wished”; this was written pre-word processor and it was harder then to check for repetitious phrase use.

Unfortunately the novel isn’t all Bussard ramjets, contact binary catapults and particle physics. A lot of people have invested a lot of effort trying to convince authors that SF should be more diverse and more aware of the world outside Canada and the lesser Anglospheric nations. This would be an example of the main pitfalls of such effort, that SF writers might actually take them up on this.

During the 1970s when this version of the novel was published, the US had suffered what amounted to a loss in South East Asia (although in terms of actually achieving what they set out to do; there are ways to frame it as as success), an oil embargo that underlined how dependent they were on foreign oil, long running economic malaise and the unexpected affront of having the Japanese suddenly dominate what had been traditionally American markets like automobiles and consumer electronics. That might explain the Yellow Menacy parts of this but I think they were there in the original version or at least that’s my impression.

I’d like to say that Ling is a credit to his race but sadly he drifts like a cork on the river of the plot, never curious enough to follow up on some obvious red flags, like the substellar object headed for the Flinger that gets noticed at one point, and credulous enough to fall for some dubious stories, like how the death of billions across the Empire was unplanned, the Quarn mind-weapons being a lot more effective than they expected. Indeed, it’s his combination of training and fish-mouthed dunderheadedness that makes him useful to the Quarn, because he can be easily conned into heading back to Earth to gather up all the Quarn-weapon immunes to “rescue” them.

I’d also like to say the Mongol Empire was a successor state to Old Nippon rather than an American author being unclear about the distinction between Mongolia and Japan. Sadly the novel makes it explicit that antagonist Tonji’s famili is from Japan [p9] while consistently using phrases like “Mongol Yellow” [p8] and “Mongol mask” [p38] in reference to him so I cannot say that I am at all sure on this point. The ambiguity surprises me because Benford lived in Japan from 1949 to 19512; did no Japanese person ever explain to Benford the origin of words like kamikaze? But perhaps in 1949 kamikaze had fallen out of fashion for some reason.

Likewise, I am not entirely keen on Benford’s depiction of Indians, although he tries his best to show some of them in a good light; they’re poor but happier and healthier than most people in the bustling Mongol Empire. Ling sees the Indians as a mystery comparable to the alien Quarn [p90]. I don’t know off-hand if Benford ever visited India before he wrote this but I do know he visited it later3 and his views that

These two vast, ancient societies [China and India] withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation, so life was much the same from one millennium to the next. Centuries slid by with little to mark them beyond the feuding of maharajahs.

would seem to indicate one or two nuances of Asian history might have missed his attention. This may explain why Asia pre-Riot War seems to have been an obscure backwater rather than the region most humans lived, a region home to nations technologically superior to the West until comparatively recently.

This was written during the period when Benford was snapping up awards and nominations at an impressive rate4 and in fact not only did this come in 11th in the 1979 Locus Poll Award, the original version garnered nominations for the both the Hugo and the Nebula, to which I can only say “what the hell, SFWA, Hugo voters and Locus readers?”.

If this is in print at this time, I have overlooked it. A lot of Benford’s books are in print and may be found here.


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