"You should try to be more friendly. Not ask so many questions of the teacher. Join in their games instead of going off by yourself and-- Oh, I don't know. We came to Rustum to keep the right to be different. I suppose I shouldn't start the old cycle over again by telling you to conform simply because it's more comfortable."
In Part One, "Robin Hood's Barn," space explorer Joshua Coffin returns to Earth after an 85-year journey (he was only awake for five of those years) to report that he has discovered a habitable planet out at ε Eridani. He finds that Earth is so overpopulated that even the U S of A has abandoned representative government and freedom of speech and that the whole planet is ruled by an unelected class of "Guardians." Most people don't seem to care--the literacy rate is like 20% and most people are content to submerge themselves in drug use and mystical religion. But among some of the literate middle classes, those essential engineers and technicians who keep things running, is a hankering for a rational view of the universe and maybe even some of the liberties enjoyed in North America in past ages! The Guardians fear that, if the philosophy of these free thinkers, known as "Constitutionalists," spreads, they could have a serious rebellion on their hands!
Constitutionalists all over begin organizing against the public schools, and, having brought the Constitutionalist problem from a simmer to a boil, Commissioner Svoboda meets his son and other members of the Constitutionalist organization to put into action the next step of his plan. (Old school SF, even by libertarian types like Anderson, is all about the efficacy of human intelligence and the power of knowledge, and so guys are always seeing their elaborate plans and counterintuitive conspiracies come to fruition. If you read history books or just watch the news on the idiot box it is pretty obvious that in real life the plans of politicians and military men almost never work out and that everybody's predictions are almost always wrong, and everybody in a position of power or influence is just playing it by ear and taking guesses.) Everybody agrees that the solution to the government vs Constitutionalist crisis, which could very well erupt into a civil war if left unresolved, is for the most fervent Constitutionalists to colonize Rustum, the newly discovered planet in the ε Eridani system. The Commish, who wasn't born into the Guardian class but rose into it and who realizes the Earth is in a period of decadence and tyranny, we readers realize, has engineered this whole turn of events in part because he wants his descendants to have a shot at living in freedom, and Rustum is the only place that can happen.
In Part Two, "The Burning Bridge," Joshua Coffin is admiral of the fleet of colonizing ships carrying some three thousand people, most in deep sleep, to Rustum. Anderson in this section works to create an atmosphere of tension; he tells us interstellar travel is like being in a sensory deprivation tank and drives people insane, and portrays the astronauts committing dumb mistakes, making rash decisions, and griping at each other. Most striking about this chapter is probably how, to minimize sexual complications, the fleet practices sex segregation, with women and men on separate vessels. Women in positions of authority even have to wear veils when they patch into the communications system for all-fleet remote videophone meetings!
The plot of this part of the book concerns a message that arrives from Earth when the fleet is at the very limit of reception range--the public education decree has been rescinded and the Constitutionalists are invited back! The fleet is almost at the point of no return, so there is very little time for the small proportion of crew and colonists who are awake to decide whether or not to turn back, and disputes between those determined to colonize Rustum and those eager to return to Earth now there is some hope of liberalization bring morale to the breaking point. Coffin wants to continue on to Rustum, but how far is he willing to break the law, bend his principles, and put others at risk to make that happen? And is his insistence on continuing reasonable and rational, or selfish, emotional, and a product of the terrific stress he is laboring under?
Part Three is based on "Condemned to Death" but titled "And Yet So Far" here. This chapter is serious "hard" SF, about engineers racing against the clock to repair their space ship in time--here's a sample passage to run through your cranium:
"Well, the Ranger is a metallic object, loaded with other metallic objects. A conductor. If you move any conductor across a magnetic field, or vice versa, you generate an EMF, whose value depends on the speed of the motion and the intensity of the field. Have you ever seen that classroom demonstration where a sheet of copper is dropped between the poles of a strong magnet?"Errr, I was probably looking at the legs of the girl sitting behind me during that demonstration. Luckily for people like me, Anderson includes in this part of the book a love triangle, which is the kind of geometry even the dimmest among us can understand.
As you can imagine, this disaster doesn't do much for already strained astronaut-Constitutionalist relations. In fact, Kivi jumps in the lifeboat so fast that Svoboda accuses him of trying to leave him behind, and then Kivi starts the liftboat engines before Svoboda can buckle up, knocking the Constitutionalist on his ass so hard Svoboda ends up in the infirmary and accuses Kivi of trying to murder him! When we readers learn how much time Kivi has been spending with Svoboda's wife Judith, we wonder if maybe Svoboda has a point!
Anyway, Svoboda figures out a way to get the ship out of the radiation belt and unload the equipment needed by the colony, and how to overcome Kivi's objections, which largely stem from Kivi's hopes that, if colony effort is abandoned and Judith has to return to Earth, she will leave Svoboda for him.
"The Mills of the Gods," Part Four of Orbit Unlimited, takes place some years after the colony has been established. Joshua Coffin and his wife (they met on the voyage when he was breaking his own rules against contact between the sexes) have five kids, including adopted Danny, whom all the other kids bully because he was gestated in an artificial womb (an "exogene tank"), the product of sperm and an ovum brought to Rustum from Earth. (From your parents yelling at you and teachers indoctrinating you, to the other kids making fun of you over stuff you can't change and pressuring you to conform when it comes to stuff you can change, Orbit Unlimited includes plenty of scenes that remind you of how horrible it was to be young.) All couples are obligated to raise an exogene to increase genetic diversity in the small colony, but so far only Coffin, the civic-minded, highly-disciplined, religious guy, and his wife have actually done it.
Down below the clouds the searchers find plenty of scientific danger (too much nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the air) and melodrama (native wildlife attacks them, and Coffin and Svoboda argue and even fight each other as they begin to lose their minds to fatigue), but they eventually find Danny and genius Svoboda comes up with a plan to rescue him from the precarious spot the exogene tyke has got himself in. This life-threatening adventure changes both Danny and his foster father's character and reputations for the better.
In the last pages of the book, the mayor explains to Svoboda that he forced him to risk his life going after Danny in order to set a precedent, an example, of community-minded self-sacrifice, even giving a little speech on the limits of individualism:
"What did we come to Rustum for? To live our own lives as we see fit, without official nosiness. Good enough. But we've carried it too far. Now that the initial struggle to survive is past, each family has retreated more and more into its own selfish concerns. We can't have that."If people won't work together voluntarily, laws and police, which are of course ripe for abuse and a plague on liberty and efficiency, will arise to force them to work together, so examples of heroism like Svoboda's are needed to cultivate a culture of voluntary self-sacrifice in the interests of the community.
In Orbit Unlimited we have four good entertaining SF stories; each one is about one or more persons and their psychological issues and interpersonal relationships, and each one speculates about a possible future milieu: What kind of social and political life might result from overpopulation? What kind of technology would be used to travel 20 light years to colonize another planet, and what kinds of lives would the starship crew and the colonists live? Another success from Grand Master and multiple Hugo Award winner Anderson.