"As far as I can tell, the object out there...the thing we have discovered is a space ship over three hundred million kilometres in diameter!"
Bob Shaw's Orbitsville, which first appeared as a serial in Galaxy in 1974, has received enthusiastic acclaim. In 1975 it won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel. The book's cover is awash in high praise from such institutions as The Times Literary Supplement and from such luminaries as our buddy Edmund Cooper. I recently acquired a copy of the 1985 Panther paperback of the novel, and this week I read it.
From its first page I was convinced that Orbistville was worthy of its renown; Shaw has a good writing style, and quickly seizes the reader's attention with compelling characters, brilliant images and a tense, suspenseful scenario.
The early part of the novel is plotted like some kind of high seas adventure story set in the 16th century-- the star ships even have to deal with interstellar weather in the form of ionic winds, and Garamond uses an ancient map to find a third habitable "planet." This is when we shift into Larry Niven territory; the heavenly body Garamond discovers is a Dyson sphere over one AU across which someone dubs "Orbitsville." The inner surface of the thing has an Earth-like atmosphere, artificial gravity, and is covered in supernutritious and easy to cultivate grass. There is enough room on the bucolic inner suface of Orbitsville to accommodate the population of the overcrowded Earth a billion times over--Garamond has discovered a paradise, and suggests the entire human race move into it and that money and private property be abolished.
Lindstrom's space fleet catches up to Garamond's ship, but she has to put her lust for revenge on the Garamond family on hold, because Garamond is a world-famous celebrity. (Shaw doesn't make it very clear, but even though sometimes Lindstrom acts like Queen of the galaxy and murders people with impunity, apparently there is some kind of Earth government and she has to take it, and public opinion, into consideration.) Lindstrom, who fills the role of evil businessperson we so often see in fiction, decides she will continue to charge people for transporting them across the galaxy, and immediately begins shipping in colonists to Orbitsville (or as she calls it, "Lindstromworld.") Unlike the many college professors I've met in real life who are feverishly hunting for grant money when they aren't railing against capitalism from their gorgeous Manhattan apartments and Hamptons summer homes, Garamond practices what he preaches and refuses the monetary rewards Lindstrom offers him for finding this paradise.
|Am I crazy, or is that Pete Townshend |
in that space suit?
Orbitsville is quite good. The adventure stuff, the science stuff, and the character stuff all work. Garamond is obviously the hero and Lindstrom obviously the villain, but both are interesting and nuanced, with Garamond causing many of his own problems and putting other people at risk with his negligence and selfishness, and Lindstrom idiosyncratic and even a little sympathetic in her broken-heartedness over the death of her son. (She reminded me of Medea, a woman both evil and wronged. This is another of those SF books which would be an interesting subject for feminist analysis; Garamond's wife is also an interesting character.) Shaw cleverly sets up parallels between Garamond and Lindstrom: both seek revenge, and even as Garamond resists Lindstrom's authority, Garamond's own crew resists his.
The actual meat of the story, the space travel and alien artifacts, reminds me of something Poul Anderson or Larry Niven might write, but Shaw's writing style and characters are better, making for a really enjoyable piece of work. And people who think "government is the only thing we all belong to" and find Anderson-style libertarianism tiresome will be thrilled with the last chapter, in which the formerly out-to-lunch government suddenly reasserts itself with the aid of that iconic hero of the center left, the investigative journalist, and throws Lindstrom in prison. In an italicized epilogue we are told colonization of Orbitsville leads to absolute equality and a homogenization of mankind; Orbitsville is a trap set by ancients designed to domesticate adventurous and aggressive societies like our own.