James P. Hogan’s 1977 debut Inherit the Stars, first in the Giants series, makes me sad. It is not so much that it has aged badly — some parts of it have withstood the suck fairy — but because of what happened to its once-promising author. Of that, anon.
Almost thirty years after man’s triumphant return to the Moon, explorers stumble across a tragic relic: a corpse. It proves oddly difficult to identify “Charlie,” as the corpse is nicknamed; he matches no missing spaceman and his spacesuit is of no known make.
The mystery only deepens when it becomes clear that his body has been lying on the Moon for the last fifty thousand years.
Charlie is paradox embodied. He is demonstrably human, identical to the people examining him, which, as Professor Christian Danchekker points out, means he is most definitely from Earth. Humans and their relatives have been living on earth for millions of years, but they have only recently been able to travel to the moon. Where was he from? Who made his spacesuit? Who left him on the moon?
He turns out to have been carrying a treasure trove of texts. Eventually scientists unlock the unknown script and language and a lost history emerges. Charlie lived on a world (which world?) doomed by inexorable climate change, a world divided between two great superpowers determined to survive no matter what. One set of clues points to a human civilization that once lived on the exploded planet Minerva; another, equally convincing set of clues, points to a terrestrial origin. The paradox seems irresolvable.
The alien starship on Ganymede might offer answers, if only it did not predate Charlie by twenty million years.…
This was one of the earliest books published under the Del Rey imprint. Lester and Judy Lynn knew their audience: there was no way I could have resisted that Darrell Sweet cover. In fact, aside from one omnibus from a company (which shall remain nameless) known for its ghastly cover art, and a variant edition from Del Rey, every edition of Hogan’s book has featured Sweet’s cover. As is only right.
This book is hard SF as it might have been written in 1960 or maybe 1950. Do not make the mistake of expecting anything more than merely serviceable prose. Hogan is also keen on ungainly infodumps. I admit that the infodump is a time-honoured literary tradition, but it can be well or badly done. Hogan does it gracelessly. The story comes to a grinding a halt while the omniscient narrator lectures. Hogan also disdains much in the way of characterization; that might draw attention from the historical and physical puzzles that are Charlie and the spaceship.
Women (or as Hogan calls them, “girls”) play almost no role in this novel. They are plot tokens, prizes for which men yearn. That said, there is one woman who is given a fair number of lines and is credited for a key insight. Lyn Garland sees the significance of one crucial document. Her method seems more intuitive than intellectual but, as it turns out, she’s right.
Aside from Lyn, the significant characters are all white men. Interestingly (at least if one is familiar with the zeitgeist of disco-era SF) this is not because the world outside North America and Europe is a dystopia mired in overpopulation, turmoil, and squalor.
During that period of history, the ideological and racial tensions inherited from the twentieth century were being swept away by the tide of universal affluence and falling birth rates that came with the spread of high-technology living. Traditional rocks of strife and suspicion were being eroded as races, nations, sects, and creeds became inextricably mingled into one huge, homogeneous global society. As the territorial irrationalities of long-dead politicians resolved themselves and the adolescent nation-states matured, the defense budgets of the superpowers were progressively reduced year by year. The advent of the nucleonic bomb served only to accelerate what would have happened anyway. By universal assent, world demilitarization became fact.
There is no reason some of the characters could not have come from Africa (which is mentioned) or Asia (also mentioned). It’s just that Hogan seems to have had something of a blind spot. It may be significant that when he does mention the nations outside Europe and North America, it is as places white men move to, not places from which people move to Europe and North America.
Hogan’s orbital mechanics do not stand up to close examination1, nor is it clear how an Earth-sized planet can be exploded. The amount of energy involved is comparable a week’s worth of the Sun’s output — which is no small amount. The author assures us that the Minervans had also discovered nucleonic bombs (more efficient than thermonuclear bombs). Perhaps they triggered a runaway cascade at the planet’s core2. Pity they demonstrated their discovery on the planet on which they were standing.…
The remarkable thing about all this is that Hogan utterly rejects the Nivenesque (or Piperesque) idea that humans could have evolved somewhere other than Earth. Charlie is
“directly related to a million and one terrestrial animal species, extinct, alive, or yet to come. Furthermore, all terrestrial vertebrates, including ourselves and Charlie, can be traced back through an unbroken succession of intermediate fossils as having inherited their common pattern from the earliest recorded ancestors of the vertebrate line”-Danchekker’s voice rose to a crescendo-“from the first boned fish that appeared in the oceans of the Devonian period of the Paleozoic era, over four hundred million years ago!” He paused for this last to take hold and then continued. “Charlie is as human as you or I in every respect. Can there be any doubt, then, that he shares our vertebrate heritage and therefore our ancestry? And if he shares our ancestry, then there is no doubt that he also shares our place of origin. Charlie is a native of planet Earth.”
How is this possible? Read the book and find out :)
In his later life, something went horribly, horribly wrong with Hogan. By the late 1990s, he had embraced a wide variety of crank views, from Velikovskyism to AIDS denial, from climate change denial to embracing intelligent design. By the time he died, he had made it very clear that his eccentricities included holocaust denial. Yet, peculiar orbital mechanics and exploding worlds aside, there’s no sign of the braineater in this novel. Hogan’s heroically iconoclastic engineer Victor Hunt expresses frustration with scientific convention , pitting him against stubbornly conservative Danchekker, but this is not the tale of One Bold Seer Versus the Blinkered Fools an older Hogan would have written. Both Hunt and Danchekker are right. There is an explanation that both Hunt and Danchekker can accept, one key insight that removes all the apparent contradictions. Indeed, working out what happened turns out to be a team effort, not a matter of the bold iconoclast overthrowing the old order.
I found this a clunky but diverting puzzle story, one that managed to be interesting without requiring an impending apocalypse (the apocalypse is far in the past). Viewed in the larger context of Hogan’s career as a whole, it’s a promising start that ends in tragedy.
1: Someone may point out that this is answered in a later book, but I have put on my blinders and I am reviewing this novel as if it were a standalone.
2: Hogan may also be referencing Tom Van Flandern’s work.
3: As understood by a Disco Era engineer. I doubt any real biologist would say “on Earth a succession of manlike beings came and went, some progressive, some degenerate.”