Norman Spinrad’s 1980 Songs from the Stars is a standalone science fiction novel.
Centuries ago, the black sorcery of the industrial age ended with the Smash. Much of the planet is a poisoned wasteland. West Coast Aquaria may be the sole exception. Relying solely on White Science of muscle, sun, wind and water, the people of Aquaria live karmically pure lives unsullied by the black sciences, living by the Clear Blue Way.
Or so they tell themselves. It’s a lie.
Life in Aquaria is made more convenient thanks to sophisticated devices that range from solar sails to small aircraft. Nobody in Aquaria has the tech skills or manufacturing mojo to make such things. The polite fiction is that the mountain williams who supply these conveniences are salvaging them from pre-Smash caches. The reality is that someone somewhere beyond Aquaria’s borders is supplying the pocket nation … for reasons unknown.
Clear Blue Lou is the perfect master of the Clear Blue Way. He is a wandering judge, resolving conflicts with a mixture of wisdom, pragmatism, and sex. His most recent case seems straightforward on the face of it, which gives the man-hunk reason to suspect that it is very twisty indeed.
Sunshine Sue is a would-be queen of a media empire. Her communications network depends on people having radios with which to listen to her. A rival clan has reported Sue’s clan for technology infringement. When the rival clan opened freshly purchased radios, the radios contained forbidden atomic science. Could Sunshine Sue’s ambition have seduced her into embracing black sorcery? Or has she been set up by some third party?
Aquaria may think that they are the only human refuge left on the planet. They aren’t. Space Systems headquarters survived the apocalyptic nuclear war that nearly exterminated humanity. Space Systems has been quietly biding its time for centuries, rebuilding its spacefaring capacity. It’s part of its grand plan to covertly assist Aquaria.
Now that the first Space Systems rocket is ready to launch, Space Systems wants abandon secrecy and get Aquaria to join the space effort.
One reason: it’s human destiny to boldly go where no human has gone before.
Another reason: once Aquaria discovers that Space Systems exists, there’s a good chance that they would mount a holy war against the evil tech-lords.
The easily discovered atomic radios were a ploy to maneuver Sunshine Sue and Clear Blue Lou into having no choice but to join the orbital expedition.
Oh, and there’s a third reason. Even as the old world was burning itself up, scientists in the Big Ear space station detected signals from an advanced extrasolar civilization. Only fragments of the message made to the ground before the world ended and contact was lost. If the new rocket works, if it could reach the Big Ear, if the scientists trapped on the station mothballed the message before dying, perhaps the humans could recover the full message and usher in a new golden age.
Quaint olden timey lingo: Spinrad uses the phrase ‘whitely righteous’ somewhat more frequently than a modern writer might. It’s white as in unsullied and pure, not in the ethnic sense. Although the paucity of personal descriptions leaves Aquaria’s demographics unclear.
Why, younger readers may ask, would a giant orbiting radio telescope need on-site human staff? Well, that’s just how we rolled back in the 1970s. Every envisioned space activity was imagined as carried out by human — well, very often male, and almost always white1—crews, regardless of whether or not having humans present would be useful or counter-productive. In part this may because writers back then consciously or unconsciously suspected that a lot of space boosters would have an unreasoning prejudice against sophisticated robots.
Songs tackles the same issues
yesterday’s tomorrow’s2 Axiom’s End does, which are the Great Silence, the Fermi Paradox, and the likely fate of humanity. Although because this is a Disco-era book, that would be the fate of Man, even though one of the leads is a woman. In Songs ’ case, there is no Great Silence, only the need to build the right tools to listen. The probable fate of humanity unless it listens to the song from the stars is planetary suicide, that being the most common fate for technologically sophisticated tool-users.
This is a very 1970s book. Persons of a certain age and reading predilection may be able to make accurate guesses about which books and magazines were on Spinrad’s shelf as he read this. Dog-eared issues of Co-Evolution Quarterly. Perhaps a paperback of Small is Beautiful. But not The Health Costs of Not Going Nuclear , given how frequently Space System’s nuclear power plants have melted down since the Smash.
This is probably Spinrad’s best book (unless Child of Fortune is), which means it’s a mixture of genuinely cool elements and annoying Spinradisms. On the one hand, it turns out that the reason Aquaria’s implausible system works isn’t because the author’s thumb is firmly on the scales3, but because the Aquarians are willfully blind to how their system really works. On the other hand, Clear Blue Lou’s endless balling his way through the hot chicks of the West Coast in the name of Great Justice and the Clear Blue Way gets old fast. The other characters are equally annoying in their own ways. I honestly can’t say whether a younger reader would find the cool bits more engaging than the annoying bits are vexing, but odds are if they don’t like this, they’ll dislike other Spinrad work more.
1: Not always white and male. But almost always. This space colony illustration,
is the only one from the O’Neill era (of which I am aware) that features a black woman.
2: Computer issues keep eating my days.
3: Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 Ecotopia works because the author wants it to work. It is not unique in this.