I suppose like many, my introduction to Timothy Zahn was his treatment of post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars novels. The Thrawn Trilogy good, light reading that does full justice to George Lucas’s screen vision, last weekend on a short holiday I brought along Zahn’s 1983 Hugo winning novella Cascade Point in the hopes of more simple, yet lucidly created entertainment. I was not disappointed.
Capitalizing on a standard science fiction MO, Cascade Point takes a mathematical conceit and extrapolates upon it to create story. Faster-than-light not a button on the dashboard, transitioning through the nodal points of reality requires every bit of mental and physical stamina a person has. Durriken, captain of Aura Beauty, is one such man. Preparing to make a delivery with the poor interstellar freighter at the story’s outset, things quickly turn unusual. Two of the passengers, a psychologist and his patient, have requested permission to stay awake during the cascade point transfer—the captain the only one who typically remains conscious. Durriken grants them permission, but upon exiting nodal travel the crew discovers the planet they arrived at is not the planet they intended. Reality a twist away from expectation, getting to the bottom of the mystery—and back to Earth—requires every bit of mental strength Durriken has.
The title no lie, the central device of the novella is indeed the cascade points. Nodes in space through which ships transition faster-than-light, it’s only through the harnessed power of ming metal that the technology is possible. But it’s what happens to humans who remain conscious during the spatial shift that is of most interest. Versions of self appearing in ghost form emanating in a cross shape from the corporeal form, the most common result at the end of a shift is psychological trauma manifesting itself in temporary depression. With versions of past selves and alternate selves shimmering into existence, a captain must be of utmost mental health to withstand the fatigue of repeated shifts through the cascade points. Cascade Point is thus both a technical and (quasi) psychological story.
Lacking in depth, Zahn delves into these topics with little realism. Captain Durriken is two dimensional at best, the other characters possessing a shade of color but by and large are hole fillers. The mystery and its resolve competent storytelling, it’s for plot and the abstraction of theory into story that Cascade Point is to be appreciated.