Monday, April 9, 2012

Review of "Starburst" by Frederik Pohl

Wow.  I’m stumped.  At its most fundamental, Frederik Pohl’s 1982 Starburst is like a cluster... bomb exploding, pieces scattering in all directions.  So many potential points of comment, such a variety of literary angles to run with, but where to begin?  Is the book satire or hard science fiction, social commentary or merely a thought experiment gone wild?  Without any basic literary indicators to shine the way, it is possible to even formulate a review?  Situation check. There are pages; the words printed on one differ from another; there’s a picture on the cover.  It’s a book, and therefore must offer some morsel for comment.  Here goes, starting with only the certainties possible.

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.


  1. Did you hear that "whoosh!" as the essence of Starburst sailed over your head in a graceful arc?
    I'm guessing not.
    You appear to want this story to be an 800 page novel full of deep discussions of reality and personality, progressing in a linear fashion from the title page to the final period.
    Why not try to understand it for what it is rather than focusing on trying for a new record for the most negative comments in a review?
    The concept of becoming "more than human" with the aid of supreme isolation, discovered betrayal, and a new psychoactive drug is a wonderful stage for Pohl's story.
    Get over your excess bile production and learn to enjoy something that is not done the way you would do it...if you could do it at all.

  2. I do not want Starburst to be the linearly developed leviathan you mention. What I do want it to be is coherent and relevant, which it is not entirely. Why?

    Juxtaposing uber-humans (ultra-civilized humans) with the current "primitive" variety through the usage of sci-fi tropes is commendable: it provides commentary on our present situation while giving humanity a positive goal to aim for. But in presenting and developing this idea is where Pohl falls short. The characters lack the detail to be realistic, and as a result become cartoonish representations. I mean, does the president strike you as a realistically or satirically presented person? And the astronauts? Pohl so quickly and off-handedly evolves these people into uber-humans that all poignancy and plausibility is lost. Had their evolution been developed more seriously, it would be easier for the reader to take the book seriously. In fact, the book inches away from sci-fi toward fantasy as a result of this narrative choice. For example, food production becomes a magical, Smurf-like process, rather than an idea readers can believe based on how the idea is developed. You simply must accept that miraculous--the ghosting, for example.

    But another important question remains: is isolating humans in an enclosed space for a lengthy period of time, betraying them, and feeding them drugs a natural environment for human evolution? Have you read The Lucifer Effect? How Pohl's idea flies directly in the face of Zimbardo's research is just one more reason I thought the novel was an attempt at satire rather than serious social commentary.

    And lastly, if you'd like to continue seeing your comments posted on this blog, please keep your thoughts focused on the book at hand. It will go a long way toward validating your opinions.

  3. I read this book over 20 years ago, after picking it up in an old book store, and, then, recovered it from a box during a recent move. I wanted to read it again, as, having remembered that I had enjoyed it immensely. Now, with the internet available, I decided to take in a review, yours being the first to pop up. Upon reading your screed, I look forward to the re-read ever the more. My recollection is that you account is baseless.

    1. Well, 'screed' seems quite a strong word to describe a review that expresses a lot of self-doubt. And indeed, perhaps there are aspects of his satire that I fail to appreciate? But like the ending of his superior Man Plus, I still have a feeling Pohl one-upped himself one too many times, muddying waters that needed no muddying to deliver the message...

      Do you know if the novella ("Gold at Starbow's End") that inspired the novel is comprehensive?

  4. Perfectly valid review - having read most of Pohl's work I agree this highly uneven book falls more into fantasy than science fiction. Attacking someone wildly for writing their objective (and rather informed, i might add) review does certainly not come off in any way as very mature.