by Robert Silverberg
Review by James J. Walton
I closed Starborne and asked myself "What exactly was that book about?"
The population of Earth is old and stagnant. Longevity treatments are common and barring accidents most people expect to live long into their second century. But as mankind's lifespan increased its spirit withered. Earth is a paradise but few people are really happy and even fewer have the will to something about their ennui.
The Wotan project, a plan to send a space ship to find and colonize an extra-solar planet via "nospace", seems just the thing to awaken a dying society. The planet pours its resources and its enthusiasm into building the ship which will carry mankind's dreams.
Fifty of Earth's finest young people (well, relatively young: they are all less that 100 years old) are selected and sent in search of a suitable new world.
We are constantly told there are 50 people aboard the Wotan, 25 men and 25 women. But by the end of the book we learn the names of only a few of the crew members. Except for 2 "crowd scenes" most of the crew is never "on stage."
The characters we do meet are cardboard stiff. Silverberg gives them first names, describes their looks, a few of their habits and some of their sexual preferences, but for all practical purposes they are interchangeable. Is this clumsiness on Silverberg's part or his subtle way of showing us how well matched the crew is?
In the beginning we meet the year-captain, a quiet, brooding man who takes his duties seriously, and Noelle, a blind telepath who serves the Wotan as the only form of communications which can reach Earth.
We never learn the year-captain's name at all, which is odd since we get to know him best via his personal log and the crew's speculations about him. He is always just "the year-captain" when the rest of the crew speak to and of him. Silverberg conveniently makes him so good at his job that the rest of the crew re-elect him to the office twice. This makes it unnecessary for Silverberg to name his main character.
We do know that the year-captain is Nordic. After finishing his education he abandoned the sciences and became a well known stage actor. Abruptly he left acting and returned to science as an explorer seeking and finding life forms on the other planets and moons in our solar system. Equally as abruptly he left science and entered a monastery inside the Arctic circle only to return to science when he learned of the Wotan project.
Noelle is the most important person aboard the Wotan. Blind, her telepathic connection to her twin sister Yvonne on Earth is the only thing which keeps moral high among the crew. Radio waves take ten years at least to reach the Earth, whereas telepathy is instantaneous. Noelle relays the daily ship's report to a news starved human race and helps maintain a sense of usefulness and connectedness among the crew.
But is Noelle's talent real? Does she actually speak to her sister daily or is Noelle making up news to keep the ship's crew happy? It is an act of faith but the Wotan's crew seems happy to believe, anything to keep the "we are all alone" feeling at bay.
It is when Noelle's mind link with her Earthbound sister is broken that the crew of the Wotan begins to despair. Are they doomed to wandernospace for the rest of their lives?
There seems to be nothing for most of the crew to do besides have sex in as many variations as possible and to play the game of Go. Most of the action in the novel takes place in either the communal baths with the conveniently placed sex chambers or in the recreation center with its multitude of Go boards. The only ones who seem to have any regular duties beside the year-captain and Noelle are Hesper who's job it is to find suitable planets to explore and Julia who is allegedly in charge of steering the ship.
The ending of Starborne seems rushed. The exploration of a couple of planets actually slows the book down somewhat. What little danger the crew faced was from possible madness and/or boredom. Any fear is generated by active imaginations with too little to occupy them.
Starborne is not one of Silverberg's best works. There is a purely mechanical feel to it, functional and usable but completely lacking art. Indeed, Mr. Silverberg made part of his reputation for being able to dash of useable and readable work to order in a very short time. Perhaps He wrote Starborne to hastily fulfill a contract?
But what is this book about? The voyage of the Wotan and the adventures of its crew? Well, sort of. Mainly it is about the reactions of certain members of the crew to shipboard life and to each other. The Wotan project is as much about isolation and boredom as it is about space exploration.
Each of the elements Silverberg put in his novel would have been interesting if explored more fully on their own. (And he does in other books.) As it is, Starborne is not bad, it's just not especially memorable.
About 12 pages into Starborne I realized that I was detecting bits and pieces of plots and characters from other authors. A little Star Trek here, a bit of Heinlein there, a touch of Niven and just a hint of Zelazny. Which just proves that no matter how good the author, he is influenced by others in his field.
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