Dancers began to understand that free fall meant free dance, free from a lifetime in thrall to gravity.Yes, which seems like a good sign.
It is the near future of 1989. Our narrator is Charlie Armstead, a talented Canadian dancer whose career in Modern dance was cut short when a burglar shot him in the hip. Now he is the world's best dance cinematographer. In the first chapter of the novel he meets Shara Drummond, another gifted dancer whose Modern dance career is in trouble--she has a curvaceous sexy body, not the skinny androgynous body a successful Modern dancer needs. These two geniuses are living out a tragedy, unable to achieve their dreams and their full potentials--but wait, Charlie has an idea! The VCR is coming on the market, and maybe the public will pay to see sexalicious Shara dance, even if the Modern dance companies won't.
After three years of dancing and filming, Shara and Charlie have failed to find a home retail market for Modern dance videotapes, so they go their separate ways. Charlie becomes a drunk, but Shara finds a more productive way to spend her time. She hooks up with a third broken person, a wheelchair-bound bazillionaire, Bryce Carrington, who has built himself a space station (up in zero gee he is much more comfortable, like that guy in Robert Heinlein's "Waldo.") Over the course of a year or so Shara works her way up from a job on the space station into the position of Carrington's girlfriend, eventually persuading him to finance a new dance venture--she thinks that the gimmick of dancing in free fall will make her dancing more marketable (as well as being an artistic breakthrough.) She reconnects with Charlie, and hires him to be her videographer up on the station.
The Robinsons give us several scenes describing, in both concrete objective terms and abstract metaphorical terms, Shara's dancing and Charlie's recording of it. There is drama around Carrington, who is kind of a jerk who uses Shara for sex and for publicity (at the same time she is using him to further her dancing career) and drama around the negative effects of zero gee on Shara's body. She spends so much time in free fall that Shara is ruining her body--it can no longer function under gravity and so she will be unable to return to Earth!
It is easy to see why the novella was such a hit with committed SF fans and SF professionals--it tells you that the creative arts are vitally important, that heroic individuals can achieve their dreams and make a difference, and that you can solve your problems by going up into space! (How do you like them apples, Barry Malzberg?)
This novel is over 200 pages long. The next part, "The Stardancers," is like 80 pages. Most of it is taken up with description of how Charlie and some other genius dancers and a genius special effects man and a genius engineer and a genius businessman build a new space station and start a dance company and school out in orbit. This is pleasant if not exactly thrilling, a celebration of friendship, love (all the geniuses pair off into couples, including a gay couple) and art. At the tail end of this second part of the novel we get lots of talk of accelerations and orbits as there is first a space accident and then the government enlists the dance troupe on a history-making mission: those aliens are back, hanging around Saturn, and the dancers and some diplomats have to fly out there to talk to them. Because of the trip's length (like three years) nobody who goes on the mission will ever be able to survive in gravity again--the Earth will be forever closed to them. This is OK with the dancers, as, just before the UN arrived, Charlie and his wife had decided that they never wanted to set foot on the crime-ridden and polluted Earth again.
|Stardance was published under the|
Quantum label, and on the back cover of my copy
is a sort of sales pitch for the Quantum line
The dancers talk to the aliens, and learn that the plasmoid blobs are not, in fact, hostile--Shara misunderstood them. The plasmoids are our ancestors, who seeded Earth with us a bazillion years ago, and have come to offer humanity a means--a symbiote they seeded on Titan--of achieving immortality, collective consciousnesses, and the ability to live and move unaided in outer space. Silverman whips out a gun and tries to seize a monopoly on this symbiote for the American bourgeoisie, even giving a homophobic and anti-communist speech. Silverman's evil scheme is foiled by the self sacrifice of a Vietnamese woman employed by the UN. Then the Chinese diplomat whips out a better gun and tries to ensure the Earth will never learn of the symbiote--he fears it will cause inequality, splitting the human race into two classes, one of god-like immortals who literally look down on an underclass of envious mortals. Charlie convinces this guy that the dancers will figure out how to share immortality with all of mankind, and everybody (except for Silverman, of course) makes up and agrees to work together to build the road to utopia.
Stardance fits comfortably in the mainstream SF tradition. Most of the book has a sort of hard SF Heinlein vibe, what with the protagonists all being wisecracking sex-loving geniuses, the emphasis on love, and the authors' effort to depict a believable future, in particular the effect of technology on people's lives and what it will be like to live beyond Earth. The end is like something by Theodore Sturgeon (The Cosmic Rape) or Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood's End), with humanity becoming united as one, thanks to benign alien intervention. The Robinsons' proudly announce their commitment to that tradition: that acknowledgements page acknowledges not only one of the greatest art rock bands, but also a whole lot of people connected to Astounding and Analog, like Heinlein, Sturgeon and Ben Bova, while John Campbell Jr, Isaac Asimov, and E. E. Smith are all referenced by the characters in the actual text (as is Frederick Pohl.) Serious sciency books, like one on Skylab and G. Harry Stine's The Third Industrial Revolution also appear in the acknowledgements.
The Robinson's writing is smooth and comfortable and I enjoyed the novel; it is a good example of 1970s SF that has period concerns like pollution and the Vietnam War and rampant crime but still follows pre-New Wave structures, techniques and themes. The Silverman character has the potential of pissing people off, and I personally always side with the USA and the middle class against the goddamned commies, but the Silverman component of the novel is just a few pages at the end and doesn't make the whole book repellent. And isn't exposure to wacky ideas and alien points of view one of the reasons we read SF anyway?
Speaking of wacky ideas, the most challenging and memorable part of the novel, on an intellectual level, is the Robinsons' effort to convince you that living in a lifeless void is better than living on a planet full people and animals and plants--it is one thing for a SF writer to suggest that life on another planet would be better than life on Earth, but the Robinsons really push the idea that life in an airless vacuum is a zen state of great beauty, far better than life on vibrant and diverse planet Earth. I never fell for the Burroughs/Howard idea that life as a barbarian in a wilderness is better than life as a sophisticate in a city, and the Robinsons have taken on an even more difficult task here, and it is compelling to see them give it the old college try.
The problem with Stardance is that the Robinsons accomplish all their goals in that very first part, and in only 60 pages (at MPorcius Fiction Log we recognize that life is short and admire efficiency.) Those 60 pages end with a satisfying climax, a mix of tragedy and triumph that is largely undone by the remainder of the book, and its anti-Americanism is more subtle and palatable than that of the later sections. While the succeeding parts of Stardance are competent, they are just the Robinsons rehashing the same themes and ideas of those first 60 pages at greater length, like a movie sequel that does exactly what the first movie in the series did, but with a much bigger budget, bigger cast and bigger explosions. I liked Stardance as a whole, but the success of the first part, a finely crafted novella, renders the rest a little superfluous. (I have to wonder what goes on in the two novel-length sequels to Stardance which appeared in the '90s, Starseed and Starmind.)