Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Sentinel Stars by Louis Charbonneau

He had sought to find some value in life other than the mechanics of push-button work, other than, as it had turned out, the purposeless pursuit of pleasure in freedom....In the end the only thing of value he had found was the personal concern one human being might have for another--a concern beyond physical need, beyond pleasure, beyond self.
Way back in 2014 I read Louis Charbonneau's 1967 novel Down to Earth and then blogged about the hundreds of things wrong with it.  Somehow, that experience didn't stop me from purchasing Louis C's 1963 The Sentiniel Stars when I came across it in Lexington, Kentucky last year.  Who could resist those wide-shouldered outfits, and the promise of a depiction of a rebel in a "hugely probable future" of "sodden slaves?"

Thomas Robert Hendley (the ID tag on his coveralls says "TRH-247") lives in City No. 9, an underground complex of tiny apartments, offices, stores and sliding walkways, one of a network of subterranean cities in our post-atomic war future, cities where bureaucrats and computers plan and schedule every moment of your life!  The video screens are full of talk of the "Merger" that has just taken place--henceforth, the long-hostile blocs of West and East will be united as one.

The Merger strikes an odd chord with Hendley--it is as if the last vestige of individual identity in a world without religion or the family unit or political parties or private property has been erased, all diversity and variety extinguished.  He feels compelled to rebel in a small way, to express his individuality, and his means of doing so is to skip work today!  Out on the slidewalk, just wandering around among the crowds, Hendley spots a pretty blonde.  He approaches her, wins her over, and he and ABC-331--she tells him her name is Ann--sneak out into the sunlight--Hendley's government assigned job is as an architect, and he knows the location of an exit into the outside world in the service area of a building he helped design.  Out under the rarely-seen sky they have illegal sex; every adult in City No. 9 is assigned a sex partner and you are only permitted to have sex once a week in an authorized Public Intercourse Booth!

The economic system undergirding this rigid society is based on "tax debt."  Everybody starts with a debt to the government, and works to pay off the debt.  Some services are free (the slidewalks, for example) but food and other things you pay for with your ID disc.  When you have paid off your debt you leave City No. 9 and move into a "Freeman Camp" on the surface.  Not having reported for work or provided a medical excuse, Hendley's disc stops working at the stores, so he must choose between turning himself in or starving.  When he turns himself in, the headshrinker ("Morale Investigator"), reminding me of Beatrice and Virgil in the Divine Comedy of Dante, authorizes Hendley to visit a Freeman Camp for 24 hours, thinking this will ease his worries and resolve his doubts about the system!

As it turns out, the Freeman Camp (which is more like an amusement park with attached hotels or a tourism-oriented city of casinos and restaurants and resorts than an actual "camp") is not all it's cracked up to be!  Sure, there are blue skies, live trees, live birds--beautiful things Hendley doesn't see underground.  And sure there are no government rules and regulations.  But living in a state of anarchy in which they have no responsibilities (the government robots provide free food and health care and so forth), the free people have turned to decadence and perversion in an effort to give their lives excitement and meaning--blood sports, drugs, alcoholism, gambling, violent crime and exploitative sex are the order of the day!  One of the freemen hates the meaningless and gruesome life of the camp so much he hatches a scheme to get out of there and into City No. 9--by stealing Hendley's identity!  This joker drugs Hendley and switches IDs with him, so that Hendley becomes a permanent resident of the Freemen Camp! 

In the Freemen Camp, Hendley finds not only rapists, murderers, dope fiends and muggers, but beautiful Ann; her government-assigned job is as a stripper and prostitute, and she must pliy her trade in the camp every two weeks or so.  Hendley and Ann declare their love for each other, but they have almost no opportunities to see each other, and, as the weeks go by, the culture of the Freeman Camp begins to corrupt Hendley, and he tries his hand at gambling and even mugging!  (Louis C seems to have a pretty dim view of human nature!  The  Freedom Camp section of the novel may be a pushback against the libertarian SF which is so skeptical or hostile to government--Louis C may be telling us that some government is necessary because we are all a bunch of selfish jerks who will run wild given the chance.)  Stepping back from the brink of total degradation, Hendley focuses on trying to escape, and eventually succeeds, though he is quickly captured by the authorities at City No. 9.

Using truth drugs, the law enforcement apparatus picks his brain, and he finds himself on trial alongside Ann.  Convicted of rebellion and sedition, the two are exiled to the desert beyond the city!  Fortunately, they meet a tribe of descendants of earlier exiles, and as the story ends we have every reason to believe that they will live happily with this tribe, and their children or grandchildren will overthrow the city government and liberate humankind.
After suffering through Down to Earth, I was expecting to have to denounce The Sentinel Stars as a piece of garbage, but in fact it is not bad.  It's obviously not original--there are plenty of SF stories about oppressive socialistic futures and plenty of SF stories about decadent utopias which don't meet man's need for challenge and meaning--but it is an entertaining little thriller.  The style is smooth, the pace fast, and the action scenes (e.g., the "hunt" sequence in which Hendley is the prey) and suspense scenes (like when Hendley gambles for his life against a robot) are good.  The SF (genetics and computers and robots and all that) and philosophical (what is true freedom?) elements give the reader a little additional meat to chew on and all the sex adds a little extra spice.

(My crazy literary theory for today, which I have already hinted at, is that Louis C loosely based this novel on Dante.  As all the medieval literature scholars who follow my blog already know, Dante begins "a new life" when he sees the beautiful Beatrice dressed in red.  Well, when Hendley first sees Ann, she is dressed in red!  Obviously, like Dante in the Comedy, Hendley has a chance to explore the next stage of existence after suffering doubts about the prevailing ideology, and like Dante his final exploration is of a place of love and happiness.  In the Freedom Camp a guy acts as Hendley's guide, sort of like how Virgil acts as Dante's guide in Hell.  Also, the title of The Sentinel Stars makes no sense, unless it is a reference to how Dante ended each of the three parts of the Comedy with the word "stars."  I know this theory is a stretch, but I like it!)

Much to my surprise I am giving The Sentinel Stars a mild recommendation to people who like quick-paced SF stories about guys rebelling against the system.  (And people who are experts on Dante who want to play literary detective!)  Our Italian friends produced a translation in 1965, and in the 21st century the novel has appeared as an e-book twice, and been most recently printed as a double from Armchair Fiction, bound with Alfred Coppel's Warrior-Maid of Mars, so it is still widely available! 


  1. I had never heard of this book before or the author. But, as a guy who toils in "tax administration", it will be added to some future April 15th reading list along with J. Neal Schulman's Alongside Night.

    Dante sounds like a good model for plot though it sounds like bits of 1984, Brave New World, and Thomas Hobbes mixed in.

    In econ lingo, I suppose this would be a "positive income tax" world. You get a bill for showing up.

  2. Actually, I don't think there's much Brave New World here, more Zamyatin's We.

    1. One element a little reminiscent of Brave New World comes late in the novel. A medical man in the Freedom Camp tells Hendley that all pregnant women, two months into their pregnancies, get genetic therapy that alters the genes of their babies so the babies will be suited for life in City No. 9. This sawbones theorizes that Hendley is a rebel because the genetic therapy on him somehow failed.