Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Hawks of Arcturus, by Cecil Snyder III

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Hawks of Arcturus, by Cecil Snyder III (DAW, 1974)

a review by Rich Horton

Cecil Snyder III was born 20 July 1948, and on his 70th birthday last week I thought I ought to resurrect whatever I wrote when I first read this novel a couple of decades ago. But I couldn't find that -- so, crazily, I went ahead and reread the book, and I've written up my current thoughts.

About Snyder almost nothing is known. (In fact, at first I thought he might be a pseudonym.) But his  Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry says "US author ... should not be confused with his father, Cecil K. Snyder, Jr., also an author". And that remains the sum total of my knowledge.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
I used to cite The Hawks of Arcturus as one of the worst SF novels I have ever read, to stand with Jean Mark Gawron's Algorithm, or J. D. Austin's Second Contact, or Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars. So why reread it? As I said, crazy. But, curiously enough, for about half the book I was thinking, "Hey, this isn't so bad! It's not great, but it's kind of fun with a nice mystery ..." -- and, then, in the second half Snyder snatches awfulness from the jaws of mediocrity. He doesn' so much fail to stick the landing as bang the balance beam with his head on the way down and land flat on his back. But, that said, I think the vaguely promising opening lifts it from utterly awful to merely bad.

It opens on Earth, as the Arcturian Ambassador is confronted by one of his own people, En'varid, who demands that he support their warlike new Herald, Darlan, in a rebellion by Arcturus against the Dominions. The Dominions are an association of all the human worlds, which consist of a great number of human colonies on other planets, as well as Earth, which has been restored to life by the colonials in recent centuries. No actual aliens have ever been encountered. The Ambassador resists En'varid's request, because he knows that a war will be no good for anyone, and that Darlan is a dangerous man. En'varid himself, we learn, is plotting against Darlan, for his own advancement.

Then the POV shifts, to Chen, a young man who has just bought a new prospecting ship. He is hitching a ride on the large transport taking the Arcturans back home, and he soon encounters, and is enchanted by, En'varid's personal pilot, a beautiful woman named Alsar. Alsar takes him to a party thrown by the Arcturans, where he meets Darlan. And the next morning, Chen is arrested for the murder of En'varid ... it's clear he's being railroaded, as the murder must have been committed by someone from Darlan's delegation, for political reasons.

We learn Chen's own secrets ... he, an orphan, was raised by an old prospector named Inman, who had investigated a mysterious artifact made of crystallized helium. And Chen has a shard of crystal helium himself -- but he has no idea what it all means.

When they get to Arcturus Chen is rescued by Alsar, and taken to a remote location. He needs to hide from the Arcturan authorities, while Alsar returns to Darlan. But Chen is impatient, and escapes again, only to be picked up by Dominion authorities, and expelled from the planet.

Up to this point I was pretty interested. The Arcturan rebellion, trite as it was as a plot element, still showed signs of being interesting. Alsar -- femme fatale or true ally of the good guys? The mystery of the crystallized helium. Another mystery -- memories of strange past events that come to people (En'varid and Chen included) who use another mysterious artifact (that turns out to be helium too of course) -- these events seem to involved a group of humans escaping a system destroyed by a nova, and being pursued by the warlike enemy Andere.

But apparently Snyder didn't know where to go with this. Chen ends up pursuing clues about a series of novas and finds a strange planet. But somehow Darlan ends up there too, in an unusual ship. There is a star-busting weapon. There is a curious story concerning the histories of Inman, Darlan, and even Alsar and Chen. (There are more than a couple bits reminiscent of Star Wars, which, to be sure, came out three years after this novel -- I doubt any influence occurred in either direction.) Then a return to Arcturus, and a thoroughly unconvincing and weirdly unmotivated strange conclusion. I thought the prose deteriorated in the latter half as well -- I really wonder if Snyder didn't just lose interest in the whole thing.

I think the elements of the book could have made a middling decent light space opera -- nothing great, but something OK. But in the end it's a pretty bad light space opera.


  1. Looks like that first comment is spam. At least this book has a nice Freas cover.

  2. I bought all of the DAW fanatically until Don Wollheim died, but I confess to having read only a few, a number that does not include this one. Good to know I didn't miss all that much.

    1. Did you display them in numerical order? I have heard it said that one of Wollheim's strategies in numbering all the DAW books was to entice collectors to get every one.