Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu Mar 29 10:49:45 EST 1990

Raymond's Reviews #26

%T Warhorse
%A Timothy Zahn
%I Baen
%D April 1990
%O paperback, US$4.50
%P 237
%G 0-671-69868-0

The cover describes this book as "a breakthrough novel". Well, it isn't that, but it is another workmanlike hard SF novel from Timothy Zahn, author of the Cobra books, Deadman Switch, Cascade Point, Triplet, and A Coming Of Age. Portions of it appeared in Analog in '82 and '84.

A future human society expanding into near interstellar space has run up against the Tamplissta, a race of humanoid eco-pacifists who are much unsettled by humanity's "predator nature". Tampy biotechnology is generally inferior to humanity's machine-based approach, but in one critical area they hold an enormous advantage -- space horses.

Space horses are huge vacuum-dwelling animals who eat asteroids and can teleport between regions of equal gravitational potential over interstellar distances. Space horses detest humans, who are thus stuck with a slower mechanical stardrive. Despite earnest efforts on both sides, friction between Tampies and humans is growing. As the novel begins, war seems imminent.

Captain Haml Roman is selected to command the Amity, a mixed-crew exploration ship with which the human peace faction hopes to prove that humans and Tampies can successfully cooperate over the long haul. Human hawks saddle him with Chayne Ferrol as his exec, a man with a bitter grudge against the Tampies.

As a model for human-Tamplissta cooperation, Amity's first cruise becomes a near-disaster. But several striking facts come to light. One is that the presence of humans stimulates space horses to breed; another is that there are other creatures from the space-horses' home ecology around -- and some of them are predators that may be able to tolerate human handlers.

These revelations may offer a path away from confrontation, if Tamplissta philosophy can be taken at face value. But are the Tampies as benign as they claim? Chayne Ferrol believes they are not, and Tampy arrogance during the Amity's voyage seems to bear him out. And why is it that the Tampies, past masters of bioengineering and supposed "friends of all nature", never got their space horses to reproduce before humans came along?

Yes, this story has a moral -- but it may not be the one you expect. I think Zahn intended it at least partly as a comment on the virtues and vices of "eco-think" in humans -- the ending, read on that level, is very pointed. Read it for the idea content and the nifty space scenes (one is set in the accretion disk around the Cygnus X-1 black hole -- yummy!). The characterization is passable at best and the prose fairly pedestrian.

This is not quite a Chrome-Plated Doohickey winner, because Zahn fluffs his best idea; he doesn't develop the space-horse ecology quite far enough to induce that true spine-tingling sensawunda feeling. It's certainly more original than most supposedly "better-written" SF, though, and in a month so far dominated by re-releases and reflections of things past it looks pretty good.

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Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>