Looking Down on Creation
Riding the Torch
By Norman Spinrad
Norman Spinrad’s 1974 Riding the Torch is a standalone science fiction novella.
Mistakes were made. Earth is a lifeless cinder. Before the planet was seared, a small fleet of interstellar ships managed to escape. Surely somewhere in the sky, there must be a second Earth.
A thousand years later, the torchships are still looking. On and on they travel, harvesting the materials they need to survive and prosper from the interstellar void.
Jofe D’mahl is widely revered as the Trek’s most brilliant performance artist. His genius is praised by none other than Jofe D’mahl, the Trek’s most brilliant artist. If Jofe isn’t the expert on what constitutes artistic brilliance, who is? All Jofe asks in exchange for sharing his magnificent talent is adoration and praise and perhaps a handful or two of comely wenches.
Jofe is therefore put out when the premier of his new dramatic piece, The Flying Dutchman, is sidelined in the public eye by the revelation that the voidsuckers, the scouts who precede the Trek in search of Earth II, have found a promising new world. True, none of the previous candidates panned out but maybe, just maybe, 997-Beta-II will give humanity its new home.
One affronted confrontation later and Jofe agrees to join the crew of Scoutship Bela 37 (the very art-hating scoundrels who ruined his party with news of 997-Beta-II) on its next six month mission. It promises to be exquisitely boring, but Jofe will be a laughing stock if he backs down.
Out in deepest space, the crew shares with Jofe their darkest secret: Earth was unique. The scoutships’ sensors are far better than they’ve ever admitted. No life-bearing world has ever been detected. 997-Beta-II is no exception: all it offers the Trek is more false hope.
The voidsuckers believe it’s time to reveal the dismal truth to the Trek. More specifically, they believe it’s time for Jofe to reveal the dismal truth to the Trek. All he has to is find some way to frame his news so what’s left of humanity is not immediately crushed by the revelation.
Smarmy disco-era male gaze warning.
I am cheating a bit because while Riding the Torch has been published on its own, it was never published in that format while I was a teen1. It was always part of anthologies2. The closest it came was being half of 1978’s Binary Stars 1.
I don’t happen to have my copy of BS1 handy, and in any case I was not fond of Leiber’s half of that book. Therefore Riding the Torch gets treated as a standalone.
Jofe is an egotistical horndog ass, of a variety sadly all too familiar from real life. Many readers will no doubt be quite pleased at the way Jofe manages to talk himself into a six-month tour of exquisite tedium and the manner in which his pride denies him any way out. This being the first step on the path to an impossible task where failure will make him a figure of shame forever makes it that much funnier.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong for anyone to draw a personal lesson from this. Never back down, even if it means you will have to gnaw off your own extremities as a consequence.
Heinlein once said “wherever there is power and mass to manipulate, Man can live.” [Editor’s note: and Woman and other genders one presumes.] Riding the Torch is takes this premise to an extreme. The Trek does not even bother pausing in lifeless systems to replenish itself. Given the premise, of a thousand years of wandering the interstellar void, it is not surprising that the Trek can do this. If they couldn’t, if they were dependent on the supplies packed away a thousand years earlier, they’d be dead. Even Twinkies probably don’t last a thousand years.
Readers seem to have responded well to this tale of human triumph over nature and human folly; it was nominated for the Hugo, losing to George R. R. Martin’s A Song for Lya . As long as the reader has a tolerance for unbearably smug artistic loud-mouths, they may find this relic of a long-dead era of some interest.
Riding the Torch is available here (Amazon). It is not available from Chapters-Indigo.
1: Because My Tears Are Delicious To You reviews cover books I enjoyed as a teenager, so they have to have been available in some form between 1974 to 1981.
2: Riding the Torch was first published in Silverberg’s Threads of Time, which looks just like the sort of book I would have snapped up as a teen. Somehow I never saw a copy. I was convinced I’d encountered the story before BS1 but the available evidence does not support this.
3: The full roster of nominees was
Strangers by Gardner Dozois
A Song for Lya by George R. R. Martin
Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg
Riding the Torch by Norman Spinrad
Assault on a City by Jack Vance