The Shadow of the Ship is a story set in a very strange universe. Interstellar travel takes place, not by starship, but by caravan, through an alternate spacetime which appears as a vast dark plain crossed by glowing trains. An animal species, the waybeasts, has evolved the ability to cross into this space, and is used to pull long caravan trains. A physical science sophisticated enough to speculate about gravitational fields coexists with a pre-electrical technology. Far off along one of the trails, a large glowing object, apparently a crashed starship, is sighted, and a caravan made up of unusual people with disparate motives, sets out to investigate.
The situation demands self-reliance and the ability to function without externally imposed law, authority, or morality. Most of's characters come from a society which encourages these qualities. It is, in fact, a frontier society, reminiscent of the United States a century ago, as the technology also resembles that of the same period. In many ways, has written a Western—in a science fictional setting which supports and extends the form rather than being arbitrarily imposed. At the same time, the story conveys a point sometimes left out of libertarian panegyrics to individualism: cooperation is essential to survival under the conditions portrayed, and libertarian values are successful precisely because they offer a superior form of cooperation which can nurture a more effective self-reliance. 's privatistic, self-centered people are the authoritarians; his libertarians are cooperative and ready to accept responsibility.
Beyond this,is much more of a poet than other libertarian science fiction writers. His landscape ls a surreal one, where everyday details are placed within a bizarrely alien country. His setting is as much an interior landscape as an exterior one, and his characters' quest is as much for self-transcendence as for any practical aim. Many of the crucial events involve struggles for self-mastery and self-transformation. Echoes of Blake and Nietzsche support this inward turning of attention, this insistence on imaginative vision as the source of practical accomplishment. Indeed, in 's peculiar hyperspace, only contact with a self-aware being can permit material objects to exist, and even self-aware beings instantly perish if they lose their footing.
The visionoffers is not fully realized; there are occasional rough places, points where sharper definition would be wished for, elements he does not make quite enough his own. But the basic content is powerful enough to be worth exploring. The reader will bring back images and insights worthy of contemplation. And, in addition, he will have participated in a world where freedom is generally taken for granted, and will have learned some valuable lessons on how such a world has to work.
William H. Stoddard is a San Diego Libertarian who makes his living as a writer. This review was originally published in the Libertarian Alternative Newsletter.
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