Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book Review: Starburst

For some reason I never read any Frederick Pohl until a few years ago when he came to the Library of Congress Book Fair a few years back. He was 87 or so and had just come out with a new book. He's one of the grandfathers of science fiction. He was a writer and a magazine editor back in the day. Asimov and Clarke read his stuff and took his advice. In short, the man is old. He's 89 now.

In the 1982 Pohl published "Starburst". It's not a long book, but it's very busy. Perhaps "action packed"? The point is that he keeps the story clicking along.

The global economy is shot. International tensions are high. America has discovered an inhabitable planet orbiting the nearest star to the sun, Alpha Centauri, and is sending an eight man crew to go and investigate. Shortly after the launch the Soviet Union announces that the planet doesn't exist. While America argues and presents their evidence we discover, behind the scenes, that all the evidence is faked. We've deliberately sent those eight people off to die.

Former Nazi Youth, Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen, determined that the greatest innovation comes from a lack of resources. Given a pile of material to help them cross a room without touching the floor kids will use it all. Given the same pile with some stuff removed the kids will find another way to cross the room and usually cross it faster. Thus, with the resources of Earth cut off he expects the astronauts to make great discoveries.

He's not wrong. Boredom soon sets in. Lots of chess is played. Soon they're making great use of the math books that were sent along. In a matter of months they're casually talking about stuff that have troubled mathematicians for centuries. Some work with the IChing using a coin to make their predictions. They perfect acupuncture and gain good enough control of their own bodies to easily heal wounds. They each cut off a small toe to have the proper bones to throw for the IChing and then regrow their toes. They develop a new propulsion system. Someone dies when they fire it up, but that's OK because he didn't really need that body anyway. And, using the IChing, they discover that the planet they're heading for isn't really there.

They decide to push on and start mining what orbiting debris there is to expand their ship. Until now they had done so by shaving metal off of bulk heads and supports to provide extra material.

Oh, and they have a dozen or two kids by now. Most of the adults have stopped talking in a way that can be understood by you or I. Only the ghost and one astronaut are still comprehensible. The kids are genetically engineered as are the plants that act as the wombs for them.

Someone on the ship sends a wave of koans back at Earth as punishment for sending them to die. Another someone radios ahead to warn them, but by the time her message is translated it's too late. The koans destroy all radioactive material on Earth.

One of the astronauts transcends the need for sustenance for her body. She hovers out the door and into space. Finding a good orbit she draws material to her to start forming a planet with her as the core.

Eventually, needing more genetic material an expedition is launched to return to Earth. They'll bring new technology to Earth and Earth will give them seeds and tissue samples. Or that's the plan. America has broken into several countries. Who knows what's happening overseas. The guy in charge of the Washington, D.C. area wants to retake the country and wants to use the weapons ("what weapons") and ships brought by the astronauts to retake the country and then the world. Getting word of this they flee to a Canadian country on the west coast. They don't want the new technology or the "help" that the visitors think they bring.

In the end, relations are reestablished with certain friendly parts of Earth and new ships with the new drives go out to colonize other nearby stars.

I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who like hard science in their science fiction. Particularly those who lived through the 70s.

Sometime soon I hope to expand upon Gödelized coding. It's one of those things that is talked about and expanded upon in the book. I need to talk to some mathematicians first.

Frederick Pohl recently started a blog in which he talks about his experiences with various famous authors he's known and worked with over the years. You can find it at I recommend going to the beginning to read about he and Arthur C. Clarke.


GreenCanary said...

Too much math in that book. I didn't read it, but the math was such that I thought my head was going to explode regardless.

Mike Rhode said...

Wow, I remember this book entirely differently, as in, "Hmmm, he's not quite on top of his game anymore, is he?"

Ibid said...

Canary: Oh, you just didn't like me ranting on about how his description of Gödelize encoding reduces to zero the first time he hits a space.

Mike: I'm fairly new to his stuff so I could have caught one of his lamer stuff.
I've been picking at his Heechee books mostly. I liked the first one, Gateway, but after that it's kinda MEH. It could be I just didn't like the direction he went.