Monday, April 9, 2012
Review of "Starburst" by Frederik Pohl
The basic premise of Starburst is that American scientists have discovered a habitable planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and send the cream of the human crop - four hand-picked couples – on a ten year spaceflight to inhabit it. Away they go. The problem is, the planet doesn’t exist. Dr. Knefhausen, the project’s mastermind, knew from the beginning the futility of the expedition. His hopes were that the isolation of space would promote intellectual activity to the degree mankind’s most challenging scientific problems would be solved. Revealed in the first couple of chapters, this may seem like a spoiler, but it’s not, as beyond this, things really get out of control.
The idea of eight humans locked in space ship for ten years seems a great premise. The potential for individual and social interaction is abound, along with the opportunity for commentary on the fundamental nature of humanity. Pohl at no time, however, delves any deeper into the mindset of the characters than a couple of paragraphs, and instead Knefhausen’s wish comes true. This, however, is not in any fashion the reader might foresee. Given the current state of knowledge regarding social psychology and mankind’s leanings toward overt egoism in deprived environments - such as the interior of a cramped generation star ship - the group’s accomplishments do not evolve in a realistic fashion. The book simply spirals into the surreal. But what to make of this? The only natural conclusions are that the story is either overly optimistic or an attempt at humor. Given the tone and how quickly the plot devolves, the book shows strong hints of being satire. But that is only a guess. No matter the intent, half-hearted scientific speculation on the details of living in space combined with commentary on the social mores of the early 80s make for strange bedfellows.
Pohl’s earlier novel Gateway is one of sci-fi’s highly recommended. He struck upon an excellent idea, mined it, and built a pillar of a story around it, brick by social brick. Starburst is scattered across a wealth of human knowledge, often to the point one thinks Pohl’s tongue is in cheek. Hydroponic babies, chakra meditation, plasma fusion, and talking ghosts are only the tip of Starburst’s idea iceberg, and none are fleshed out in any detail. A hodgepodge that slips and slides out of focus, Pohl does not regulate points of view. Some characters remain on-stage for a few chapters, others a paragraph, and none seem to have a story which flows toward a central theme other than the larger evolution of history and politics. As such, magic realism seems a better label than the hard science fiction many others have placed on it.
In the end, Starburst is a jumbled mess that slowly takes itself beyond the realm of believability one page at a time – and there are only 200. Such a mix of tangible and intangible ideas presented indifferently, one must give Pohl the benefit of the doubt that chaos was his intention rather than accidental creation. Based on the mixed signals, the serious and seemingly sarcastic alike, it remains tough for any reader to know the book’s aim for certain. It could be a satire on the post hippy generation, an optimistic look at the possibilities of space, a thought experiment on ennui, or just a one-off to satisfy a publishing contract. Anywhere from the sci-fi version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to the latest from Adam Roberts (Burst of Stars!), Starbust is an unsyncopated offering from a writer who seems to know what he was doing, just not sure anyone else does.
As a side note, about the only thing that rings loud and clear in the book is the unbelievably prophetic nature in which Pohl depicts the US presidency. An uneducated country boy whose only desire is to maintain authority with lethal force, images of GW and Iraq will dance before the reader’s eyes reading of the unintentional chaos unleashed when leadership meddles with powers beyond its control.