Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 1999


By Poul Anderson
(TOR Books, $25.95)

Imagine embarking on an interstellar voyage with the sad knowledge that while you're gone, generations will have died. Imagine leaving with high hopes of alien contact, only to confront the discouraging failure of other star-faring civilizations to flourish. Imagine the final indignity of returning to an Earth that has become an equally alien world, indifferent to the fruits of your quest.

That's the bittersweet premise of Starfarers, Poul Anderson's disquieting blend of brooding romanticism and sobering realism. Anderson is not as renowned as Robert Heinlein or Arthur Clarke, but he ranks high in the pantheon of science fiction's golden-age writers. For almost half a century, he has written compelling novels and stories, rich with adventure, character, appreciation of nature, and love of life. Anderson shares Heinlein's storytelling flair and love of liberty and Clarke's sense of poetic beauty, but his fiction is distinctive for its wintry Scandinavian moods.

Unlike some science fiction writers, who hit their stride early, Anderson just keeps getting better. In Starfarers, as in some of his best previous books (The Boat of a Million Years, Tau Zero), Anderson tells a wistful tale of episodic discovery and future evolution while raising disturbing questions about the long-term prospects for scientific progress, individual freedom, and interstellar exploration.

When astronomers discover evidence of a starfaring civilization 60,000 light years away, ten scientists volunteer to journey there on the starship Envoy. No convenient faster-than-light drive, a la Star Trek or Star Wars, for Anderson: The round trip will take 12,000 years, but only a few years pass on Envoy because of the time-dilation effects near the speed of light. Envoy's multicultural crew bonds into an uneasy extended family, but the tensions and shifting liaisons of a long voyage take their toll, threatening the mission.

Back on Earth and neighboring colonies, despotisms rise, science stagnates, and humanity splinters into genetically altered races. Those few who continue to travel between nearby stars knit into the Kith, a subgroup treated with increasing condescension and prejudice by planet-bound aristocracies.

Suffused with a sense of homesickness and the preciousness of life amid a vast cosmos, Starfarers reflects an older man's awareness of the remorseless march of time. Anderson recognizes that we are all time travelers by the end of our life journeys.

Longtime Anderson fans may miss the bright optimism and wit of his Trader to the Stars series or the recent Fleet of Stars trilogy, but the patient will be well-rewarded with solid science fiction that avoids easy answers and “warp-drive” fantasies.

So far-flung are this novel's scattered triumphs and defeats that characterization is not as rich as one expects from Anderson. Many alien and human characters appear too briefly to make much impression, while the starship crew is drawn just deeply enough to support the terrific story. Ironically, the increasingly alien characters reinforce Anderson's theme. By the novel's cautiously optimistic end, readers will join the surviving crew members as strangers in a very strange land.

Reviewed by Michael Grossberg

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