1979’s Space Angel is the first of two works in John Maddox Roberts’ Space Angel series.
Thanks to the vicious War with the Triumvirate, former POW Torwald is an experienced spacer for whom employment is simply a matter of selecting which spacecraft to grace with his skills. He prefers to work with independents, even though 97% of interstellar trade is controlled by large corporations. He signs on with the Space Angel, an antiquated relic of times past..
He takes pity on a recent acquaintance, Kelly (friendless orphan and inexperienced teen) and arranges for Kelly to be hired as ship’s boy. I would guess that this is nod to hoped-for teen readership.
Off to the stars!
The Space Angel and its surprisingly diverse for a late-1970s SF novelcrew head off to what should be a very straightforward, perhaps even boring, assignment. This should be a good way for Kelly to get his feet wet; no unknown unknowns, only diligence demanded. Or so everyone thinks.
Alpha Tau Pi Rho/4 is home to diamond deposits containing diamonds of absurd size. The deposits were discovered during the war by a spaceman, Aleksandr Strelnikov, who decided not to share this discovery with his bosses. Once the war was over, Strelnikov returns to Alpha Tau Pi Rho/4 to exploit his find. He doesn’t have enough cash to set up a proper mining operation, so he has hired the Space Angel to dig up some of the deposit.
What no one knows: Alpha Tau Pi Rho/4 wasn’t formed naturally. It was created by an alien entity, Sphere, which covered itself with a shell of diamonds surrounded by a planet, then hid for billions of years. When it’s unearthed (well, un-Alpha Tau Pi Rho/4ed) during the course of mining, it wakes, assesses the humans, and decides they could be useful tools in its grand quest to conquer the universe.
Sphere offers the crew of the Space Angel enticement to cooperate. Cooperate with Sphere and become vastly powerful and wealthy in the process! Why not just force them to do its will? Sphere doesn’t want to have to contend with rebellious minions. Minions who might just figure out a way to drop Sphere (which is fairly small and completely immobile) into the nearest black hole.
The crew cooperates. They purchase some military-grade weapons and recruit two genetically engineered space warriors to use them. Sphere then helps them equip Space Angel with a star drive that is far faster and less nausea-and-hallucination-inducing than the conventional Whoopee drive.
After that, it’s off to the centre of the Milky Way, where alien civilizations and alien relics abound. Oh, and where a mad god waits to greet them all.
I have read about many imagined star drives that cause hallucinations in users, but the Whoopee drive is the only one I recall that causes uncontrollable diarrhea. Yes, this made large troop transports unpleasant.
Having just received my copy of Deepnight Revelation, a Traveller campaign detailing a twenty-year exploration expedition, I was in the mood for something Traveller-esque. Space Angel, with its tramp starship and foray into the deepest parts of the Milky Way, seemed just the ticket.
I should have remembered that there was a reason that even though I’ve owned this book for forty-two years, I’ve never gotten around to rereading it.
Space Angel is indeed very Traveller-like. It resembles campaigns run by uncreative gamemasters who generate adventures with random encounter tables. Emphasis on random. The centre of the galaxy turns out to be littered with relics and civilizations, to be encountered serially, few of which have anything to do with the quest supposedly motivating Sphere.
I will grant that the encounters provide a nice example of how to add player characters when the campaign is already well underway: the ship retrieves Homer1, an invulnerable, immortal alien, from a deep-space wreck, thus acquiring a guide. In the spirit of you can’t always have what you want, Homer is very well informed but primarily in fields pertaining to poetry. If what Space Angelneeds to know isn’t contained in a stanza somewhere, the odds that Homer knows it go way down.
Alas, the novel reads as though Roberts had a general idea of the sort of book he wanted to write—I suspect it was “another Solar Queen adventure2”—but wasn’t quite sure how to shape a coherent narrative. As a result, it’s all a bit random until suddenly, having reached the desired word count, the narrative abruptly is resolved. For now: there’s a sequel, which I have never read.
Space Angel is out of print. I confess this does not surprise me. The revelation that there was a sequel was unexpected.
1: Homer is a nickname of sorts, since humans cannot pronounce its real name.
2: Just like the crew of the Solar Queen, the Space Angel’s crew never see the riches they have been promised. They are forced to undertake endless side-quests before they can finish the task for which they were recruited.