Sunday, May 27, 2018

Starburst by Frederick Pohl

"My God," he said, shaking his head, "it's politicians who are supposed to be the manipulators, not scientists.  You're acting like a tinpot Jehovah!  You use human beings like laboratory rats, tricking them and in the end killing them."
Most of the SF I have read since this blog arose from the slime to sow terror and confusion about the countryside has been in old paperbacks or old magazines (often via the medium of the internet archive or the SFFAudio PDF page.)  But in my youth most of the SF I read was in hardcover, because I was at the mercy of libraries in the suburban New Jersey towns where I and my grandparents lived, libraries which didn't really stock paperbacks.  One of the authors the librarians seemed to favor was Frederick Pohl, and I read lots of hardcover Pohl novels published in the '70s and '80s when they were relatively new.

As an adult I reread and loved Gateway, but on a reread I found Beyond the Blue Event Horizon to be mediocre and I was irritated by Drunkard's Walk, which I viewed as too much (for my tastes, at least) a product of Pohl's political ideas, ideas which I do not find congenial, so I avoided Pohl for some years.  Recently, however, I really enjoyed Pohl's short story "The Fiend," which sparked a curiosity about all those old hardcovers like Jem and Black Star Rising that I recall so little about but which I presume I liked.  I began looking into used bookstores specifically for these 1970s and '80s works, and my first hit came in late May at the Old Book Shop in Morristown, New Jersey, a place I frequented while still living in the greatest state in the union and which I try to visit on my rare trips back.  For $1.50 I got a paperback copy of 1982's Starburst, adorned with a rainbow-like cover and high praise from the Minneapolis Tribune, which ceased publishing under that name soon after printing that laudatory review (the Tribune survives as the Star Tribune, in 1982 having been consolidated with the Minneapolis Star.)  Was the Tribune full of crap when it said Starburst was "one of the best sf novels of the past three or four years?"  Or will Starbust be so good that I will be jumping in my Toyota Corolla to scour the Eastern seaboard's used bookstores for copies of the aforementioned Jem and Black Star Rising so I can indulge in what the TV-watching public might call "a Frederick Pohl binge?"  Let's read Starburst and find out.

Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen, alumnus of the Hitler Youth and veteran of the Eastern Front, is a genius!  You might even say an evil genius!  He has worked his way to the top of the U.S. space program, and convinced the American people and government to finance the construction of an interstellar space ship even though the country is wracked by unemployment and civil unrest and faces the prospect of Africa being taken over by violent Muslim radicals; he even personally hand-picked eight people of the highest abilities to crew the ship on its voyage to Alpha Centauri.  Von Knefhausen got the people of the land of the free and the home of the brave to sign on to this expensive project by telling them that there was a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri for the eight heroes to explore, but the Bolshies over in Moscow are not so gullible as us Yankees!  Soon after liftoff, the commies announce to the world that their instruments indicate that there is, in fact, no planet orbiting Alpha Centauri!  It's not long before the President of the United States has called von Knefhausen on to the Oval Office carpet and is demanding he explain why the German egghead tricked him into lying to the whole world and sending eight of America's best and brightest on a one-way trip to their deaths a bazillion miles away!

Von Knefhuasen explains that the free world, to outlast the communist East, needs scientific breakthroughs, and isolating the eight astronauts from the distractions of the Earth, putting them in a situation where they have nothing to do but think, will probably result in them coming up with some awesome new ideas!  (This scheme reminded me of Theodore Sturgeon's classic story from 1941, "Microcosmic God," and Thomas Disch's fine 1967 novel, Camp Concentration--in both, ruthless authorities impose deadly conditions on people that foster innovative thinking.)

Pohl's narrative switches back and forth between Washington, D.C. and the starship and employs a number of narrative strategies.  Many chapters are in the third person omniscient, though the ones on Earth include lots of internal monologue stuff from von Knefhausen; some early chapters consist of transmissions from the astronauts back to von Knefhausen, and some later ones are first person narratives composed by the the most sympathetic of the astronauts, Eve Barstow and Willis Becklund, the spacefarers least altered by their revolutionary adventure.

Squint or click to marvel at the love showered on Starburst by the critics

Von Knefhuasen's scheme almost immediately bears fruit--with nothing better to do, one of the spacers proves Goldbach's Conjecture.  Within a year the astronauts have invented a more efficient, more expressive, language that leaves them bored with the clumsiness and annoyed by the sluggishness of English.  They become very interested in random numbers and their use in divination, and acquire knucklebone dice by chopping off their little toes--no real sacrifice, as they have developed means of controlling their bodies to the point that they can ignore pain and even regenerate lost digits.  They also realize, via I Ching hexagrams and a "personality analysis" of Knefhausen, that there is no planet at Alpha Centauri and that they have been sent on a fraudulent suicide mission; this inspires a consuming wrath towards the German scientist and a determination to build a planet around Alpha Centauri for them to reside on.

While the astronauts develop increasingly unbelievable powers, back in Washington things rapidly deteriorate, with political violence escalating and the federal government's power diminishing until a confused civil war, with military units switching sides and untrained youths taking the place of disciplined soldiers as the professionals are steadily killed off, ensues.  Things on Earth go from terrible to still more terrible when one of the astronauts, full of rage, uses his psychic powers to direct a stream of kaons at Earth; kaons cause radioactive materials to lose their radioactivity and instead shed tremendous heat.  This sneak attack renders useless nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors all over this big blue marble, crippling energy production, and also causes global warming that raises the sea level.

Starburst feels very long.  The tone is detached and uniformly flat, and the plot is episodic and has a feeling of bland inevitability; Pohl's novel lacks emotional high points and offers no suspense or tension or catharsis.  The characters are not very engaging, and those we follow most closely are, during the period the novel directly covers, spectators rather than drivers of events.  Mad scientist von Knefhausen is probably the most interesting character, though Pohl tries to make Eve Barstow, the least intelligent of the astronauts, sympathetic by describing her loneliness and ennui--she cannot learn the new-fangled super-efficient language of her comrades and is thus left out of much of what they do.  Eve is also the only astronaut who maintains her humanity; for example, she embraces the traditional female role of raising the astronauts' army of genetically engineered kids when most of the spacefarers have progressed so far intellectually and even physically that they see their own offspring as laborers, as the machinery they have built to do the tasks necessary to construct their artificial planet.

Pohl's writing is deliberately oblique and parcels out information in a fragmentary fashion, leaving the reader to figure out some things or just wait until they are explained.  Early in the story Willis Becklund is killed, but his personality somehow survives and continues to interact with the other explorers as a "ghost;" the nature of his living death is explained (in a vague and impressionistic fashion in keeping with the novel's interest in Eastern mysticism) many chapters later.  Similarly, we are presented with the astronauts' passel of children long before it is explained how these strange beings, genetically engineered to achieve English literacy at age two and sexual maturity at age six, were actually produced.  The reader's experience thus mirrors that of the characters--when von Knefhuasen was in the driver's seat he kept all the other characters in the dark as to his true designs, and when he is out of favor he has to contend with the astronauts' confusing messages and endure years in prison, where he receives only scattered clues about what is going on in the calamity-wracked outside world.

Some twenty years after leaving the Earth the astronauts and their fifty or so offspring have made great progress in building a Centauran planet out of asteroids and comets, but they want more raw materials and more genetic material and so they debate how to acquire these resources from Earth--via threats or via trade?  To assess the lay of the land back on the mother planet Eve and Willis return to the post-apocalyptic Earth with six children; Eve's twelve-year-old son, himself a father, is in command of the vessel.  They are greeted by the current President of the United States, whose domain consists of merely a portion of a largely submerged midAtlantic region--the rest of the former USA is split into little competing fiefdoms.  Von Knefhuasen died in prison a few months ago.

While Americans are reduced to riding around on horses and their President speaks with some kind of hillbilly accent, civilization has been reborn in Western Canada.  The leader of this oasis of order and technology in British Columbia, a beautiful woman, is on hand in Washington to make sure the President, whom Pohl portrays as a buffoon, doesn't have a chance to seize the Centaurans' technology and use it to reunite the United States.  She guides the visitors to her Kanuck utopia where everybody lives in an efficient little apartment and population levels are carefully controlled, and she has sex with Eve's son, who is sixteen after the four-year trip from Alpha Centauri.

Eve also starts a relationship with a handsome Canadian, a police officer (even though the sight of his gun makes her queasy.)  Willis the Ghost raises a ghost of von Knefhuasen in order to berate and humiliate him--he gives the German scientist a big nose and makes him say things like "oy vey" and "bubbeleh."  The astronauts offer the Canadians their supertechnology, but the Canadians reject the offer, preferring to keep their utopia the way it is.  I guess that is the (underwhelming, after 216 pages) climax of Starburst; the sensawunda denouement is that the principal Alpha Centaurans split up to colonize different areas of the galaxy (accompanied by some volunteer Earthlings), while Willis, the ghost, explores time and the universe and nervously contemplates the end of time.

Long, tedious and a bit dull, Starburst is disappointing, no matter what various newspapers claimed back in 1982.  Pohl presents situations that should provoke an emotional response in us readers--von Knefhuasen, Eve Barstow, and Willis Burkland are all people of ability and ambition who are suddenly thrust into catastrophes and find themselves essentially helpless and totally isolated from the rest of humanity--but somehow Pohl failed to generate any feeling in this reader.  The book is cold and distant--perhaps Pohl's failure to convey human feeling or depict human drama is a function of the novel's alleged satiric intent?

Publishers Weekly, in the blurb reproduced above, tells us Starburst is, in part, a satire.  If a satire is supposed to be funny, Pohl again fails, because there are no laughs in this book.  The effect of the jokes, if they have any effect at all, is to defuse any drama, or leave the reader scratching his head.  The way von Knefhuasen is turned into a caricature of a Jew, for example--Pohl didn't bother to paint von Knefhuasen as an anti-Semite, and in fact pointed out early on that he was not a committed Nazi but simply an opportunist, so the gag at the end of the book comes out of nowhere.

More interesting than whether or not Pohl's humor succeeds is the question of what Pohl is satirizing here.  A ruthlessly manipulative German scientist, stupid Americans, clever communists and wise Canadians, and a USA crippled by illegal immigrant demonstrators, stone-throwing college activists and heavily armed African-American terrorists, and then finished off by the temper tantrum of an intellectual, are certainly the kinds of elements you might expect to see in some left-winger's satire of a post-World War II United States.  Pohl, like grad students I have had the misfortune to have to work with, also pushes the idea that technology and trade are detrimental rather than beneficial to human life--the Canadian woman suggests that the kaon strike that has denied the Earth any nuclear power wrought an improvement over the Cold War conditions that prevailed before, and we get an abbreviated lecture on how international trade is characterized by imperialism, cartels, dumping, and trusts.

More effective than this bog standard lefty boilerplate stuff is what I take to be Pohl's examination of the science fiction trope of the superman and his rehearsal of the timeless insight that power corrupts.  The smartest and most powerful individuals in the book are the least decent and least kind, the astronauts (besides Eve and Willis) growing more and more selfish and less and less connected to their comrades and their families as they grow more intelligent and acquire more abilities.  Power corrupts, whether it is the genius of a von Knefhuasen, the supergenius of the astronauts, or the political power of a head of state (though not if she is Canadian, I guess.)

Starburst is not actually bad; I am not quite prepared to declare it a waste of the reader's time.  There are interesting ideas, and tons of science stuff--I don't think I've encountered kaons anywhere else, nor the idea of a Gödel code.  Pohl also tries to explain solitons and instantons, one of those concepts I am never going to understand.  Contra Washington Post Book World, what the novel lacks is any sense of fun (though I suppose Democrats and foreigners may read about the destruction of the United States with glee) and any sort of feeling--there is no adventure, no excitement, no human drama, and I didn't care about the characters and I wasn't eagerly turning the pages to see what happened next.  I have to judge this one barely acceptable, and admit that any plans of seeking out Jem or Black Star Rising have been put on the back burner.


  1. Drunkard's Walk is a pile of crud regardless of its political content. I am interested in putting together an higher education in SF list....

    As for Pohl, I feel like I need to reassess his later fiction (his early novels are really poor in my view) as I read Gateway and this novel (I think, I no longer own it) primarily as a teen.

    1. My next Pohl experience will be short stories from the beautiful paperback collection I recently got, In the Problem Pit...

      or the memoir The Way the Future Was, another recent addition to the MPorcius library.

  2. Pohl is an author I want to read more of, and I haven't read this one.

    I do have to say, apart from an interest in books with future American civil wars, it's not going to be the next Pohl I pick up

    1. I think the consensus is that Gateway is the best Pohl solo novel, though Space Merchants, co-written with Kornbluth, is widely beloved.

      The civil war stuff in Starburst is just in the background, there is nothing about social change or political maneuvering or military strategy or anything that might interest a person interested in civil wars as an adventure setting or as a historical phenomena.

    2. I've read several Pohl novels and short stories, but Gateway is the big gap in my Pohl reading.