Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri Aug 23 11:21:37 EDT 1991

Raymond's Reviews #141

%T The Silent Stars Go By
%A James White
%I Ballantine/DelRey
%D September 1991
%O paperback, US$
%P 441
%G ISBN 0-345-37110-0

The author of the well-loved "Sector General" stories and the underrated The Watch Below gives us tasty alternate-history space adventure. In the fourteenth century of a timeline that saw Hiero of Alexandria's toy steam engines brought to the court of the High King of Ireland seven centuries previously, the Empire of Hibernia is the dominant power of Earth --- and the leading member of the international consortium that will build the "Aisling Gheal", Earth's first starship.

Healer Nolan is the most junior of the ship's officers, its surgeon, and a male pioneer in a calling traditionally exclusive to women. His ability has gained him a place beside the priest-officers of the starship in spite of the powerful Hibernian Church's reluctance to admit a non-believer.

A series of accidents and his unguarded tongue land him in situations which reveal that the high-level politics of the mission are far more complicated and murky than they might appear. It begins to seem that the deadliest threats the crew may face come not from the alien world they are to explore but from within the crew's own ranks.

Only some powerful friends made in unexpected places keep Nolan on the mission. And when, after planetfall, Nolan and a contingent of colonists are shuttled down thousands of miles from the colony site, this begins to seem less and less like a blessing. Then it is that Nolan's story begins to echo, eerily, the doings of the legendary Brendan the Navigator, discoverer of the Westland and (later) honored Paramount Chief of the Iroquois Nation...

This novel is lots of fun; an improvement in that respect on White's previous Federation World, which, while brimming with neat SFnal idea content and alien biologies, was rather stiff in the joints. White learned his auctorial trade a long time ago, and in some respects his style hasn't changed much since; the result is a book that is semi-nostalgically reminiscent of the best in '50s and '60s magazine SF --- but with much a much franker treatment of sexual elements. One can almost imagine it as a reprint of an Analog or Galaxy serial that never was.

I thought White was particularly successful at evoking authenticity in characters, who, while living in a technological society, feel the constraints of hierarchy and religious taboo far more strongly than even very conservative sorts in ours would. My own experience of Catholic schools made the merciless pseudo-benignity of the Hibernian Church seem very real to me; White makes the ethical point of his story stronger than it might have been by painting the scheming Monsignor O'Riordan not as a villain but as an ethical man acting out the consequences of evil, dangerous moral errors inculcated in him by his religion. The implied criticism of the religion is more effective than simple melodrama would have been, especially in contrast with the historical flashbacks that reveal the doings of the tolerant "heretic" Brendan.

All in all, I recommend this as a very good time for fans of traditional SF and anyone who likes a good adventure story. Let's hope White can give us a good many more like it.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri Aug 23 11:21:37 EDT 1991

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