Flawed but intriguing
The Starchild Trilogy
By Frederik Pohl & Jack Williamson
1977’s The Starchild Trilogy collects the three short novels of the eponymous trilogy by Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. I cannot say the novels are actually any good — in fact, I will be devoting a certain amount of space to pointing out the ways that they aren’t — but they certainly are odd and they do offer a remarkable level of wacky fun.
Jack Williamson was one of the great figures of early SF, a fellow born so long ago that when his family moved to New Mexico, they did so in a horse-drawn wagon. His first story was published in 1926; his final novel in 2005. In 1976, reportedly determined to honour Williamson before advanced age stole him away, the SFWA named him the second Grandmaster ever. Williamson lived until 2006.
Fred Pohl, who is perhaps best known for defeating me for a Best Fan Hugo in 2010, also had a bit of a writing career (as well as an editing and what might best be described as an apocalyptically disastrous agenting career); people interested in his life should track down a copy of his autobiography, The Way the Future Was, and peruse his blog, The Way the Future Blogs. A stripling youth compared to Williamson, Pohl died in 2013.
The Reefs of Space • (1964) • novel
The 20th century’s profligate use of resources proved that people left to their own devices would only be wasteful, self-centered and nasty. As people are in all ways awful, the only to create a world less horrid is for a single authority to unify the whole of the solar system into one highly regimented panopticon state. The Plan of Man is that authority, and under its Planner and more importantly, under the supercomputer known as the Machine, humanity enjoys the benefits of a regime only slightly more repressive than China’s Legalists.
Mathematician Steve Ryeland is a living example of what happens to people who disobey the Plan, even inadvertently. Deemed a Risk, he is equipped with a remote-controlled explosive collar. He is still required to serve the Plan but one slip on his part and boom! He is even more distressed by the insistence of the Plan’s functionaries that he knows about spacelings and reefs of space, whatever those are.
Through no particular fault of his own, Ryeland becomes entangled in the current Planner’s grandiose schemes to bring yet more of the universe under the Plan’s control. The Planner is convinced that a jetless drive, a means of propelling rockets that does not depend on conventional action and reaction, is possible; Ryeland is assigned to the team charged with developing such a drive. Ryeland’s prospects seem very poor since the laws of physics appear to forbid reactionless spacecraft. He is rather startled, therefore, to discover that not only is the drive possible, the project has in its possession an example. A living example.
It seems that thirty-two billion kilometers out in the depths of space, beyond the outer edge of the Plan’s Solar System, lurk strange forms of life previously unknown to man, powered by the energy of the fusorians and filled with a bewildering variety of life. Some of this life can create force bubbles that can contain a breathable atmosphere. Some of this life can propel itself without the need for rockets. Together the species of deep space have created little islands of life: the Reefs of Space!
The Plan has to control the Reefs! But the Plan may not be able to survive contact with the freedom the Reefs offer! And whichever way events play out, it’s very unlikely Ryeland will manage to survive them!
This novel had more exclamation points in it than I expected in a novel from the early 1960s (more on that later). What caught my interest as a sixteen-year-old was the idea of the Reefs, tiny, self-sufficient worldlets out in space, and the idea of ecosystems adapted to conditions in space (what would now be called extremophiles, although I don’t think that word had been coined just yet). Williamson had played with the idea before in his SeeTee books
(where he coined the term “terraforming” to describe the process of turning a lifeless rock into a living world) but there the process was entirely artificial. Here it’s the result of uncounted billions of years of evolution. IN SPACE!
It’s also completely wackaloon, because the authors have bought into Sir Fred Hoyle’s Continuous Creation Model, then run with it farther than even good old Sir Fred might have. This was about as late as an SF author could do that seriously — although I am not sure Pohl and Williamson meant this as serious rather than a consciously old-fashioned pulp romp — and really, even by 1963 (when the novel was serialized in If), the portents were not favourable for Continuous Creation. One of the advantages Continuous Creation offered Pohl and Williamson was time: the universe was eternal and so very unlikely lifeforms would have time to evolve.
The Plan of Man is a fairly standard off-the-shelf autocracy, although the degree of corruption is fairly impressive (and is even worse in the sequel). The resource depletion angle, which predates all that Club of Rome stuff, may have come from Williamson; there is a similar thread in the SeeTee books.
There’s a romancey thing with the Planner’s daughter that is tepid even by pulp standards. Ryeland himself is but a cork on the river of the plot.
Starchild • (1965) • novel
Who is the mysterious Starchild issuing ultimatums to the Plan of Man and how can they make the stars themselves suddenly go dark on command? What is the purpose of the campaign of sabotage that plagues the Plan of Man? And how did loyal Plan of Man spy Boysie Gann travel from the Reefs of Space to the Plan’s innermost sanctum in but a moment? And what of poor Julie Martinet?
A cynic might ask why the Starchild went about its mission in the way that it did, because it seems to be designed to maximize drama and body count rather than to accomplish its goal effectively. The death toll is incompatible with what we later learn of the entities behind the campaign.
Pohl and Williamson develop the Reef ecosystems a bit more; there’s a lengthy section involving Gann that seems to exist mainly because the Reefs are cool and it would be a shame not to show them off. I cannot fault the logic. Although the first book may have given the impression that the Reefs could have been designed with human occupation in mind, this makes it clear that this is an illusion created by the richness and diversity of the Reefs: a small fraction of it is hospitable but a lot of it is unspeakable alien, completely unsuitable for human life. Even in the ecosystems where humans can live there is a catch: humans can eat the local life, and the local life can consume or infect the humans.
As it turns out, the vast network of ecosystems of which the Reefs are a very small part is much larger and much odder than the Plan understands.
This is set some decades after Reefs, long enough that refugees from the Plan have begun to settle the Reefs. The Plan isn’t dealing with the sudden appearance of an escape hatch particularly effectively; basically, they’ve tried to create a Berlin Wall IN SPACE!, which is about as effective as you would expect.
Julie Martinet has an unfortunate surname for an off-stage girlfriend. It’s not as bad as Mary Syphilis or Joan Yronklad Bytch, but it’s certainly not a promising or even subtle surname.
Rogue Star • (1969) • novel
The Plan of Man is long gone, swept away as soon as humanity came into contact with the vast network of civilizations and godlike beings (some of whom inhabit the stars themselves) who call the local group of galaxies home. While humans are but a very junior member of the community, they are a very junior member of a culture that is by our standards (and certainly by any poor subject of the Plan’s) a near-utopia. In these here galaxies, nobody’s life is any worse than they want it to be.
Mostly. Monitor Andreas Quamodian is one of the unhappy exceptions. He is called home from Exion Four by a desperate message from his former girlfriend and One True Love, Molly Zaldivar. He finds himself diverted in mid-teleport, kidnapped by a rogue star whose plans for the community it rejects are very dark indeed.
On Earth, Molly can only watch as her brilliant and all too ambitious boyfriend Cliff Hawk tampers in God’s Domain. Few are bold enough to try to study rogue stars. Cliff plans to create one in his secret, mountain-top laboratory!
And he will be all too successful.…
Andreas Quamodian belongs to that select group of protagonists who could have stayed home and read the paper without much reducing their effect on the outcome of the plot. Molly has more effect — but only as a hostage and the object of a stalker’s obsession.
The world Andreas lives in, a low key utopia that offers immortality or the lack of it as people choose, is more interesting than the story itself (“The world is more interesting than the story” could be the motto of the trilogy.) Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of his world. We do see enough to know that even godlike entities can’t really do anything about obstructive bureaucracies.
Comments on the trilogy as a whole:
If I had to pick one phrase to describe the trilogy, I am afraid “strangely archaic” would beat out “goofy fun”, although I would give “goofy fun” very serious consideration. I think that if you handed the trilogy to a reader familiar with the field, but not these particular books, and asked them to guess the publication date, they would be more likely to guess that the books were published in the 1930s, maybe 1940s, than they would be to guess the early to late 1960s. There’s nothing in the three books to suggest that they are in any sense modern: not the prose, not the way women are treated, not the setting itself. Some elements, like the confusion of scale that has a star being built in a lab, could come right out of an Edmund Hamilton story. That’s not a compliment.
In fact, there’s some evidence the authors ignored recent developments in science and astronomy  and not just to make the wheels of the plot go round. Despite being serialized in If in 1965 and published the same year, it’s very clear that Pohl and Williamson’s Venus is a pre-Mariner 2 Venus; Mariner 2 flew past Venus in 1962. Similarly, their Mercury is a Mercury that is tide-locked, with one face always turned towards the sun; that was shown to be false by 1965.
Rereading this raises a few questions: is this perhaps intended as a joke, or at least an amusing homage to old time SF? I know that I have a blind spot where humour is concerned so I cannot rule out this conjecture. I cannot help but notice that the editor of If during the period when these three books were serialized was a fellow named Fred Pohl. I believe that this fellow was not just on familiar speaking terms with author Fred Pohl but had also cohabited with agent Fred Pohl back in the 1950s. The omnibus was published by Bantam , around the time they were published a highly successful line of Frederik Pohl Selections. It seems to me like there’s a common thread running through most of companies that published these books, but, alas! it’s just slightly too subtle for me to put my finger on it.
Rereading this, I was a bit frustrated that the element that most intrigued me, the gloriously pulpy space ecosystems, were not given more attention in the plots. We only get brief glimpses of these settings as characters rush about, carrying plot tokens to and fro. The political stuff was pretty standard material, so it’s sad so much time was spent on that and not on young people zooming from reef to reef on their pet spacelings, pursued by hungry sleets and ravenous pyropods. What we do see is fun enough that I still own my mass market paperback from the 1970s.
I know I have grumbled about younger writers reusing older writers’ idea but when they do that, it’s almost invariably an old classic, which immediately sets up a benchmark they will probably fail to meet. A flawed but interesting work like this one seems like it would be richer soil for an ambitious young writer. A younger writer could take just a little seed of an idea from these older works, dial it up to eleven, and create something gloriously mad and not just a lesser, sadly derivative work. It would not even have to be prose; I could see the Reefs as the setting for an amusing anime.
People interested in how collaboration works, or at least worked for Williamson and Pohl, may find this podcast interesting. be warned it starts as soon as you go to the page.
1: There’s also the odd detail that the occupied galaxies, which appear to be in the local group are numbered, rather than named. It may be that this reflects alien convention but it gives the parts of the book that deal with them an oddly flat affect.
2: Also the SFBC.
I cannot see how I missed getting this in SFBC hardcover but somehow I did.