Volume 16, Number 2, Spring, 1998

The Fleet of Stars

By Poul Anderson

TOR, 1997, 311 pgs.
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Poul Anderson's Fleet of Stars takes place a half century after the close of his Prometheus finalist Harvest of Stars. It is set in the same universe that produced 1995's Prometheus winner The Stars are Also Fire and nominee Boat of a Million Years. It follows Anson Guthrie, the hero of Harvest who, in that book, founded Fireball Enterprises and led an exodus of some of Earth's descendants to the stars. In Fleet of Stars, Anson returns to the Solar System in order to find out what the Cybercosm is up to on Earth. This novel lacks the scope and grandeur of the previous books in the series, though it is as engaging.

Fleet ranks with the best of Poul Anderson. It is a good story with well-defined characters, struggles we care about, and a mystery to hold our attention. As befits the best writers, he didn't set out to write an explicitly libertarian novel, so we have to examine the plots and subplots to identify the libertarian strains. Most of the individual characters have deep drives either to be left entirely alone by governments, or to get free of one that is binding in some personal way. The general population that serves as backdrop seems satisfied with a static society that is quietly managed by the unembodied cybercosm and its representatives.

The story is told from the points of view of a few interesting characters on each of Earth, Luna, and Mars. The principal characters include:

plus a variety of members of evolved offshoots of earth's inhabitants including Lunarians and Metamorphs. The characters have interesting and varied motivations.

Anson takes a few chapters to return from the distant stars, which gives the author a chance to bring us up-to-date on how things have changed since the close of the previous novel. The various tribes of Earth's descendants have split up to three star systems, and the separated branches no longer have regular contact with one another.

Contact is reestablished when the Lunarians in the asteroid belt suspect that the Cybercosm is sabotaging their efforts to repeat Earth's observation of the distant galactic center. What don't the machines want everyone else to find out? The characters learn and grow as we watch, and take ever more certain steps to find out who is stifling their growth and to regain control of their lives.

The major conflict is between the cybercosm and those who feel stifled by its management of Earth's disparate communities. Some subplots include the Lunarians, who were gene-engineered for adaptation to Luna, and the Keiki Moana, enhanced (uplifted?) seals who, together with the Lahui Kuikawa, (humans of apparently polynesian descent) live in harmony with their aquatic environment.

The Lunarians are more suited to living in small, widely-separated groups than to large communities that foster interactions between strangers and the rules and governments that straighten out the resultant misunderstandings. Having been pushed off the moon by the increasing influx of humans, some moved to Alpha Centauri with Fireball's exodus. Those remaining on Mars are loath to see the same thing happen again. Some of the Keiki Moana are also beginning to feel hemmed in by the boundaries the Cybercosm imposes.

The Cybercosm argues that all these strictures are necessary in order to allow the various communities to live together peacefully and not outgrow the available resources. They aren't keeping the observations secret, they're studying their results so they can be presented calmly once they are understood.

In the end, the protagonists are faced with a difficult choice. Do they have sufficient reason for publishing the hidden truth about what has been observed at the center of the galaxy (which they don't have time to examine before deciding) or should they leave it hidden?

Overall, a very satisfying book, and quite worthy of a Prometheus. Fortunately, this year there are a few books this good, so you'll have to read all of the nominees in order to select a favorite.

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