Bob Shaw’s 1969 novel The Palace of Eternity is almost a mirror image of this week’s Tanith Lee: it starts off looking like the hardest of hard SF, then heads off into territory more often associated with fantasy.
Sickened by his experiences in the great war between humanity and the alien Pythsyccans, retired soldier Mack Travener settles on the planet Mnemosyne. Conventional interstellar craft cannot approach the planet, which is surrounded by a shell of fragments left by two shattered moons. Mnemosyne seems doomed to remain an eternal backwater. Inexplicably, despite its rustic nature, the planet is a hotbed of creativity, particularly artistic creativity.
Mack’s attempt to reinvent himself as a civilian mechanic on a planet of peaceful artists is short-lived.
Seven years ago, seven light years from Mnemosyne, a star died to enrich the local interstellar medium for the benefit of the butterfly ships , the Bussard ramjets that are crucial to faster-than-light travel 1. As the novel begins, the light of the slain star reaches Mnemosyne and with it comes the war. It is no coincidence that the Federation acted to facilitate interstellar travel in the vicinity of the Poet’s World. The great electronic brain that guides the war effort knows that there is something unique about Mnemosyne, that the same factor that allows the arts to flourish can be invaluable to the war effort.
Of course, the poets, artists and musicians who call the world home may object to having their planet commandeered. In fact, given the military’s use of heavy-handed methods to push the locals to one side, conflict between the civilians and the Federation forces is pretty much a given. Mack’s contrarian nature ensures that he is drawn into the antiwar resistance. It’s not a conflict that can end well for the folk song army.
It’s a pity that the best the artists can hope for is to live long enough to flee into the wilderness, because the stakes are much higher than mere survival of the human race. At stake is the very soul of the human race.
And for Mack to take his proper role in the great struggle to redeem humanity, first he will have to die.
First, a word about the Ace Science Fiction Specials , of which this novel is one. There were three Ace Specials series: the first and third, which were edited by Carr2, are generally seen as remarkable collections of noteworthy fiction, while the second series, not edited by Carr, is seen as coming between the first and third series. This novel was part of the first series, which means it appeared next to such classics as Rite of Passage , The Left Hand of Darkness , Pavane, and A Wizard of Earthsea 3. If you are a fan of science fiction and you have not yet discovered the first and third series, congratulations! You’re part of today’s Ten Thousand!
Palace of Eternity was one of Shaw’s earlier novels; it was preceded only by Nightwalk and The Two-Timers (his short fiction career started in the 1950s). I don’t know what exactly his readers might have been expecting but the first two-thirds of the book are solidly hard SF by the standards of the 1960s. (Not that those standards were rigorous: even Larry Niven’s Known Space, with its FTL, telepathy and extraordinarily implausible biology, counted as hard SF.) It’s impressively grand-scale stuff, too: Shaw doesn’t settle for Bussard ramjets married to FTL drives; his Federation reshapes the stars to facilitate interstellar travel.
A cynic might ask if Shaw ever ran the numbers on some of his ideas (or if it was plausible that shattered moons would form a shell and not rings). If he didn’t, he had a lot of company in that oversight.
Palace is also one of the few SF books to ponder the implications of the Fermi Paradox in the context of comparatively easy interstellar travel and even easier interstellar communication. WE live in a silent universe where Earth demonstrably has never been settled or contacted by super-advanced aliens. It could be that we are the first species, ever, to reach a technology that enables us to send and receive signals from space.
Unfortunately for the humans in this story, they are not the first, or the only. Advanced civilizations are ephemeral; the same technologies that allow access to the stars also facilitate total species extermination. Most species live and die alone. The humans have expanded into what seemed to be a silent universe … and then had the extreme bad luck to run into the Pythsyccans. This will probably result in the death of one or both species. But it would be only a premature death, as they were doomed to commit suicide if not killed first. Cheery outlook, eh what?
So far so hard SF. The book then takes a giant leap from grand-scale hard SF and proto-milSF (hard enough for Galaxy or If, anyway, and harder than a lot of the stuff that ran in Analog) into metaphysical science fiction about the state of the human soul. It’s as if Larry Niven had been mugged by Olaf Stapledon and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin4.
I expect some readers might call the result Van Vogtian and indeed, Carr got a cover blurb from Van Vogt. I wouldn’t call this book Van Vogtian, because Shaw, when you get right down to it, is a sensible chap. The essentially incoherent madness of Van Vogt is not Shaw’s style. The sudden turn into metaphysics is less a bizarre digression than it is a leap to a brand-new context in which a lot of what the humans thought they knew suddenly takes on an entirely different significance. There’s another explanation for why the sky is silent, not to mention a reason for the Pythsyccans to act as they do that isn’t simply a desire for living space. The latter is not a reason that reflects well on humans.
Which, as someone who read a lot of Shaw, is something I would expect from Shaw. He may have been a sensible chap but he was also pretty cynical about human behavior (particularly where relationships are concerned; don’t expect any happy marriages here). I can assure you that as gloomy as he could get, Shaw wasn’t a die-hard pessimist. We may screw up on a cosmic scale in this book, but the situation is not entirely without hope. Not entirely.
Palace of Eternity is available from SF Gateway. Amazon seems to offer it on Kindle, which is interesting as I didn’t think SF Gateway had North American rights.
1: Technical digression. Before starships can transition into tachyons, they have to reach 60% of the speed of light, which is pretty darned challenging if you’re using conventional fusion rockets. A deuterium-tritium rocket with an exhaust velocity of 2,000 km/s would require a mass ratio of e^90, which is a stupidly large number (1039 th, more or less; actually, more because I didn’t take relativity into account). Even beam-core antimatter only gets the mass ratio down to 6 or so, more if you take into account relativity. And square those numbers if you are planning on actually stopping at the destination.
Using the interstellar medium as fuel and reaction mass means that mass ratios are much much smaller. It’s a real shame Bussard ramjets don’t appear to be workable
60% of C in whose frame of reference , you ask? Look, over there! The Winged Victory of Samothrace!
2: Carr died before the third series could be completed. Damon Knight stepped in to replace him as editor
3: The complete list of the first Ace Science Fiction Specials is as follows (lifted from Wikipedia):
- Clifford D. Simak — Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (reissue)
- James H. Schmitz — The Witches of Karres (reissue)
- R. A. Lafferty — Past Master
- Gertrude Friedberg — The Revolving Boy (reissue)
- Wilson Tucker — The Lincoln Hunters (reissue)
- Alexei Panshin — Rite of Passage (Nebula Award winner)
- Joanna Russ — Picnic on Paradise
- Bob Shaw — The Two-Timers
- D. G. Compton — Synthajoy (reissue)
- Piers Anthony and Robert E. Margroff — The Ring
- James Blish and Norman L. Knight — A Torrent of Faces (reissue)
- James H. Schmitz — The Demon Breed
- Roger Zelazny — Isle of the Dead
- John Brunner — The Jagged Orbit
- Ursula K. Le Guin — The Left Hand of Darkness (Hugo Award and Nebula Award winner)
- Philip K. Dick — The Preserving Machine
- Avram Davidson — The Island Under the Earth
- John T. Sladek — Mechasm (reissue)
- D. G. Compton — The Silent Multitude (reissue)
- Bob Shaw — The Palace of Eternity
- Keith Roberts — Pavane (reissue)
- Michael Moorcock — The Black Corridor (reissue)
- R. A. Lafferty — Fourth Mansions
- D. G. Compton — The Steel Crocodile
- Joanna Russ — And Chaos Died
- Avram Davidson — The Phoenix and the Mirror
- Ron Goulart — After Things Fell Apart
- Wilson Tucker — The Year of the Quiet Sun (Retroactive Campbell Award)
- R. A. Lafferty — Nine Hundred Grandmothers
- Ursula K. Le Guin — A Wizard of Earthsea
- D. G. Compton — Chronocules
- Bob Shaw — One Million Tomorrows
- John Brunner — The Traveler in Black
- Suzette Haden Elgin — Furthest
- Bruce McAllister — Humanity Prime
- Michael Moorcock — The Warlord of the Air (reissue)
- Gerard F. Conway — The Midnight Dancers
- Gordon Eklund — The Eclipse of Dawn
- Brian W. Aldiss — Barefoot in the Head
- D. G. Compton — The Missionaries
- Gordon Eklund — A Trace of Dreams
- Fritz Leiber — You’re All Alone
- Barry N. Malzberg — The Falling Astronauts
- Tom Purdom — The Barons of Behavior
- Bob Shaw — Other Days, Other Eyes
- Theodore Sturgeon — The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon
The third series, which was shorter and focused on first novels, was as follows:
- Kim Stanley Robinson — The Wild Shore
- Carter Scholz and Glenn Harcourt — Palimpsests
- Lucius Shepard — Green Eyes
- Howard Waldrop — Them Bones
- William Gibson — Neuromancer (Nebula Award and Hugo Award winner)
- Michael Swanwick — In the Drift
- Jack McDevitt — The Hercules Text
- Loren J. MacGregor — The Net
- Richard Kadrey — Metrophage
- Ted Reynolds — The Tides of God
- Claudia O’Keefe — Black Snow Days
- Gregory Feeley — The Oxygen Barons
I am not sure which of these was the final one acquired by Carr and which was the first one acquired by Knight.
Note that while the first series has a number of books by women, the third has but one. And given the date it was published, O’Keefe’s Black Snow Days may have been acquired by Damon Knight, not Carr. I don’t know why the third series has so few women, given the great influx of women into the field in the decades leading up to the third series.
4: The resolution of the novel reminds me somewhat of Clifford Simak, who is not someone I had ever particularly regarded as like Shaw in any way. Well, except that they both would be shelved under S.