BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Robert Silverberg
Public Domain, 1958
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Filed under: Sci-Fi
I had certain expectations when I downloaded a sci-fi novel from 1958. I figured with a book titled Starman’s Quest I was in for a Buck Rogers style romp across the asteroid belt chock full of ray guns, green aliens, war-era tech talk, and a plot concerning the destruction of the universe. I’ve got to admit that I was pleasantly surprised to read the book and find my assumptions were wrong across the board.
Starman’s Quest veils its age nicely. Unlike other old public domain adventure stories like King Solomon’s Mines in which the adventure is constantly filtered through a dusty, dated lens, this novel felt quite contemporary. Admittedly, I don’t read all that much sci-fi, but the plot seemed pretty original and even somewhat fresh, despite the book’s age.
Take the opening line for instance (quoted from a scientific journal circa 3876 AD):
The Lexman Spacedrive was only the second most important theoretical accomplishment of the exciting years at the dawn of the Space Age, yet it changed all human history and forever altered the pattern of sociocultural development on Earth.
In the pages to come Silverberg presents some interesting and creative ideas on space travel and relativity and their implications that I didn’t really think had been considered that much in the 50s, specifically in fiction. However, I’m mostly basing this assumption on old sci-fi movies, so I could be way off base.
Alan Donnell works on his father’s interstellar freighter, the Valhalla. These ships travel across the galaxy delivering supplies to fringe colonies and trading with alien civilizations, and return to Earth with rare commodities to sell. Because of the relativity, a trip that takes the crew a few months of tranist can take years or even decades in Earth time. This makes seventeen year-old Alan over three hundred in chronological years.
Alan has traveled the cosmos, visited various planets, even has a vocal, rodent-like Bellatrician companion named Rat. However, on his various returns to Earth, he has never ventured beyond the spaceport, as the starmen tend to remain within their insular community while docked on Earth, due largely in part to the relativity schism. With each return, family and friends age and die, slang passes and trends evolve, leaving the starmen in a detached situation much like Napoleon faced in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Alan’s twin brother, Steve, jumped shipped on their previous return to Earth, so when the Valhalla again docks in port, Alan sets into York City to seek out his lost brother, who is now nine years older and not really his twin any longer. He soon meets up with a shady but seemingly magnanimous Han Solo-like gambler named Max Hawkes. Hawkes shows Alan the ropes of this foreign Earth.
I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, though it does get quite predictable at times, mostly due to Silverberg employing a little too much obvious foreshadowing. I found it immensely interesting, however, that the titular quest was not a cosmic trek but rather a young man’s immersion and exploration through a futuristic caste system based on hyper-capitalist, hyper-beauraucratic ideals. Silverberg does an excellent job of imagining the politics of this world and of rendering the society and cities that evolved in its wake. Alan is thrust into the underbelly of a city not unlike that of “Blade Runner” (yes, I know the book was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but I prefer the movie), full of robots and gamblers and drug addicts and crime syndicates.
Starman’s Quest is a fun sci-fi novel. At times it is gritty and a bit brooding, at others optimistic and exciting. It has the makings of early cyberpunk, so fans of that sub-genre will definitely enjoy this book, and sci-fi readers in general will find a lot to enjoy in these pages as well. For me this book somehow combined the old with the new before the new had existed, and I like that a lot.