Edward Llewellyn-Thomas (1917- 1984) had a long and interesting career. Two elements of that career warrant inclusion here. The first is that towards the end of his life, he began writing and publishing science fiction under the pen-name Edward Llewellyn. The second is that he was a Professor in the University of Waterloo’s Psychology Department, something I only discovered while reading his obituary in 19841.
1984’s Salvage and Destroy is the fourth book in his Douglas Convolution sequence.
The Ult have ruled the Cluster for millennia, ever since the Drin, former masters of the Cluster, made the terrible mistake of contacting the then-barbaric Ult. Extermination denied the Drin the chance to learn from their error; the Ult, now the most civilized of civilized races, remember how they came to power. They will never make the mistake of handing a youthful barbarian race the keys to the stars.
Their compulsively altruistic Ara cousins, on the other hand, could not leave well enough alone. Which gets us to the matter of the humans.
The Ult no longer explore, content to focus on perfecting their glorious civilization. Indeed, the long term trend is a slow contraction as economically marginal worlds are evacuated, their populations relocated to rich planets within the interstellar teleport network. The Cluster is an ordered and secure empire, where the power of the Ult elite is unquestioned.
The First Sol Mission was the Cluster’s final exploratory mission. The one inhabited system it found was our Solar System. The First Sol Mission soon decided Earth of the 1680s was too distant and too barbaric to warrant integration into the Cluster. They returned home, leaving only an orbital beacon to monitor the planet, taking with them a handful of humans rescued from certain death by the kind-hearted Ara.
That handful of refugees grew into millions, unremarkable within the Cluster’s trillions save for their unruly ways and a talent for crewing (increasingly irrelevant) starships. Earth on the other hand developed at breakneck speed, a potential threat to the Cluster save for one thing. Terran technological prowess is matched only by our collective lack of wisdom. All signs point to human self-destruction in the near future. Earth is a self-solving problem.
Or it would be, if not for the orbital monitor. If the Terrans ever stumbled across it, the monitor’s communication beam would lead the humans to the Solar System’s interstarfield vortex. The vortexes beyond were each marked with their own buoys by the excessively diligent Ara. The path leads directly back to a Cluster that has not fought a determined enemy in millennia. The odds of this happening are very, very small but too high for the cautious Ult to ignore.
Lucian of the Ult is senior enough to be trusted to deal with the crisis, junior enough that he cannot turn the assignment down. Accompanied by an all-human crew on Hyperion, last of the Explorer class starships, Lucian sets out on the second and final Sol Mission to Earth, doomed planet of barbarians.
Last redoubt of the Drin.
This was Llewellyn’s fourth science fiction novel, the last published before he died. The previous three—The Douglas Convolution, The Bright Companion and Prelude to Chaos — were set on Earth, in a future history where the human population collapsed after most women were born sterile thanks to widespread use of a chemical whose full side-effects were not obvious for a generation. This was Llewellyn’s first foray into space opera, the first novel set largely off Earth.
Although the ISFDB thinks this is a stand-alone, it’s actually part of the Douglas Convolution continuity. Don’t blame ISFDB for missing the connection. Unless one has read the other novels, the significance of Salvage and Destroy’s final line is not at all obvious. Whether it is the first or the fourth book in the series depends on whether one goes by internal chronology or published order. The final line is much funnier if read after the first three books2, so I would advise reading these in publication order.
Salvage and Destroy is an odd mix of old-style space opera and Reagan-era SF. Earth is doomed by a combination of technological sophistication and wilful blindness that prevents humans from tackling problems before they end the species, something it shares with any number of SF novels from the period. At the same time, there’s something very Golden Age about the Ult’s psionic powers and their race-memories, not to mention humans as the virile barbarians threatening an ancient, effete civilization.
There are a few details that would have affronted John W. Campbell, although perhaps not some of his more lucid contemporaries. For one, humans may be a serious threat to the Ult but their short-lifespans and characteristic flaws would make them poor replacements for the Cluster’s rulers. For another, while humans are a highly variable species3, the significant variations are at the individual level, not the racial. The original group of humans taken from Earth was “varicoloured”. The first major Terrestrial city the Second Sol visits is Singapore, chosen because it is the third greatest entrepot on Earth and diverse enough the off-worlders won’t stand out.
Cynical teen Mary Knox used her position as the first human to deal with the Ara to ensure human culture in the Cluster was free of the prejudices and abuses of 17th century Earth. Women and men serve as equals on starships. Both are free to initiate and abandon love affairs as they see fit. At the same time, left to their own devices, it’s the women who do the cooking and John Turner-style sexual harassment is apparently a universal behaviour. Llewelyn tries to overcome his cultural blinkers but in the end fails. Still, I can point at far more recent novels that do a worse job. At least he tried.
I was a bit nervous rereading it since I had fond memories I didn’t want ruined by grim reality but in the context of other books from the same period, this stood up reasonably well. With a bit of editing to replace 1980s obsessions — Malthusian doom, nuclear war — with modern concerns — climate change, nuclear war, the dumpster fire south of the border — this could reprinted today without anyone realizing it’s over thirty years old.
Salvage and Destroy is long out print. Print runs in the 1980s were huge, though, so the odds of finding a used copy aren’t bad.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com
1: As I recall, the obit mentioned his engineering background, not his medical one. Since my father taught engineering at UW, I wondered if I ever met Llewellyn without realizing I was meeting an SF author in the flesh (many SF authors appear entirely normal at first glance.). If Llewellyn spent most of his time within the uncharted labyrinths of the Psych building, into which many have ventured and few returned, our paths probably never crossed. I was an exec at Watsfic in the early 1980s, so it was an opportunity missed.
2: It gets less funny once one realizes that the mass sterilization may not have been the mishap it seemed to be but deliberately engineered by Lucian and his fellow off-worlders. It’s exactly the sort of covert manipulation a helpful off-worlder might think of to save Earth from itself, a controlled collapse designed to avoid all-out nuclear war. There are at least three groups in this novel who might have come up with the idea.
3: The Ult have spent twenty thousand years methodically culling members of subject races that fail to fit the Procrustean preferences of the Ult. It’s not that all aliens are inherently less diverse than humans, just that this specific set of aliens is, with the possible exception of the Ult.
One of the traits the Ult made a point of eliminating was any kind of resistance to “mentorsion”, the Ult psychic blast. This happened long ago. Lucian is the first Ult to realize this means that because humans only entered the Cluster a few centuries ago, they’ve never been subjected to this specific eugenic program. But no reason for the Ult to panic: the humans seem to be so resistant to mentorsion they have never noticed it exists.