(Please note this review is for the novella Stardance, not the later novel.)
One of only a handful, Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s 1979 novella Stardance accomplished the rare feat of sweeping the major American science fiction awards. The quality of these awards contentious, the story appears to fit perfectly in the middle of the other novellas receiving such recognition. Founded on a strong, poignant premise and escalating into the goofily absurd, the story has something for all fans of science fiction, and as a result resides on the fence of quality.
Stardance is the story of Charlie Armstead, a former dancer who was forced to become a cameraman after an accident left one of his legs permanently injured. A colleague introducing him to a new dancer named Chara one day, Armstead quickly dismisses the woman based on her size and build. Seeing Chara dance, however, ideas begin to form in his head of how he might be able to capitalize on her unique talent for both their benefit. Striking out together to attempt modern dance in a fashion never before presented, Armstead places his future in the hands of Chara and his camera work. Where the choice takes them is out of this world and into a venue never before having seen dance, and, a few other squiggly things.
For those familiar with modern and post-modern dance, Stardance will strike a chord. (If unfamiliar, Wim Wenders’ brilliant documentary Piña comes highly recommended as an introduction to post-modern and free-form dance.) The Robinsons obviously familiar, they wholly incorporate the art into the story—on Earth and in space. Zero-g dancing an intriguing idea for dance enthusiasts, the writers would seem to capitalize admirably on the premise; the dance routines are described in highly evocative and well-set terms.
Where Stardance falls apart, however, is with its inclusion of ‘squids in space’. The storyline working beautifully until extra-terrestrial interests manifest, an overwhelming odor of cheese takes over the last fifth of the story—an abrupt right turn from the penthouse of New Age the novella had been riding into the slums of pulp sci-fi. Undermining the wholly human story built to that point, the ‘punchline’ of the theme (as evinced in the novella’s closing sentence) could have been handled to far better effect. The aliens only twisting the story into incredulity rather than allowing the human interest to fully blossom, they feel redundant; Chara’s plight alone is enough to make the same point. But as it stands, the elements introduced distance the story from reality, pushing matters into mush entertainment and away from human interest.
In the end, Stardance is a novella which smears its own superb potential by taking the conclusion one step—leap, in fact—too far. Armstead literally pulling a snowball from his refrigerator early in the story to manifest the idiom of “a snowball’s chance in hell”, I suppose the cheesiness of the conclusion was telegraphed. The quality prose, humanism, and dance effects related in proper fashion, if one is to truly enjoy the story they should focus on these elements and ignore the ending. Otherwise, Margaret Atwood is right…