a review by Rich Horton
Here's another old children's SF book. by a real legend of SF. Jack Williamson (1908-2006) published stories in 9 decades -- his first in 1928, his last 80 years later. He was popular from the first, and published major work in essentially all those decades, including a Science Fiction Hall of Fame story, "With Folded Hands" (1947), that still holds up even now; and a Nebula and Hugo winner as late as 2000. But in a funny way he was also always just slightly out of the mainstream of SF -- never listed with the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Bradbury as truly one of the greats; often somewhat forgotten. Part of this is merit, I think -- I thought his 2000 story "The Ultimate Earth", definitely not worthy of its awards. But part may reflect gaps in his production (he spent some time doing continuity for a comic strip, and lots of time teaching.)
|(cover by Robert Amundsen)|
So -- it's really not very good. One of the keys to writing a good YA book is to avoid the appearance of "writing down" to your presumed audience. Williamson fails utterly in that area -- the book is over simple, and full of somewhat pandering explanation. But more than that, the plot is kind of weak, too, and the science isn't all that great (though he at least tries.)
Jeff Stone is a young man, just graduating from pilot training at the Space School. His older brother Ben graduated two years before, and went on a mission to a new star system. (Apparently these missions have a 30% fatality rate!) Ben seems to be lost as well, and there is going to be a rescue mission. Rather implausibly, Jeff is chosen. He'll accompany a fellow recent graduate, plus a girl, Lupe Flor, who was raised by hive-mind aliens after her parents crashed on their planet, and Lupe's alien friend.
They head off to the planet Topaz, 1000 light years away. There's a certain amount of (actually tolerable) guff about how the FTL drive works -- artificially reducing mass (which really doesn't make any sense but whatevery). When they get to Topaz, they are immediately attacked ... and they also hear a message from Ben.
The main issue, really, is how to make contact with the aliens of this system, who seem to want to shoot first and ask questions never. And then to figure out what happened to Ben. Not surprisingly, Lupe's alien friend turns out to be vital.
The actual theme here, if laid on a bit heavy, is just fine -- the notion that all aliens, no matter how weird, even aliens who live in empty space, are fellow beings that we should be friends with. And in fact the novel's skeleton, advancing that notion, is just fine. The problem is the creaky rescue plot, and the annoyingly condescending writing style. Definitely a very minor entry in the Williamson oeuvre.