Sunday, April 8, 2018

First to the Stars by Rex Gordon

I saw instantly that it did not matter how I lived or what I did.  My future was negative.  At the very best, for the rest of my life if I lived for a hundred years, it could only be the avoidance of love, of committal, of further pain.  What did it matter if the "people" around me were green-skinned, insectival, and busy as ants or bees?  Human society would have the same aspect to me: that of people engaged in hopes and aspirations that I could not share.  
Do you remember what you were doing on March 2, 2014?  I don't either, but if you scroll back, back, back far enough through this blog's content you will see that on that date I was complaining about the terrible writing and copy editing that went into Rex Gordon's 1969 novel The Yellow Fraction.

If I had remembered that on June 27 of last year I probably would not have purchased the Ace edition of Gordon's 1959 novel First to the Stars while down in Carolina visiting in-laws.  (Gordon's countrymen over in Great Britain printed this novel in 1961 as The Worlds of Eclos--the cover illustration includes what appears to be some serious plagiarism.  Perfidious Albion!)  But what's done is done; I have made my SF bed and will lie in it.  Maybe this 190-page novel, written 10 years before the one I denounced not only for its unforgivably poor style, but also for its politics and plot, will be better?

The United States government has determined that if you send a man alone out into space he will go insane.  Also, that if you send two men out together into space, they will both go insane.  ("Didn't O'Hara and Gollancz try to murder one another when we tried the experiment with the two of them?")  The taxpayers are not interested in financing a rocket big enough to haul three or four men, so it is decided that, for the three-year mission of mapping and photographing Mars, a crew of one man and one woman will be sent.  The man is our narrator, pilot Major David Spencer, and the woman is biologist Dr. Elvinia Köhl.  Spencer and Köhl immediately take a dislike to each other, but keep their antagonism to a minimum while on the ground because they know there are plenty of other people who would jump at the chance to make this historic voyage.

After blast off our bickering astronauts face many technical problems.  They find themselves so far  off course that ground control doubts they can get to Mars, and orders them back, but Spencer pulls a Nelson and claims he can't read Earth's signals and tries to reach Mars anyway.  After six weeks he realizes that their acceleration has caused Einsteinian effects to kick in much earlier than the government eggheads had predicted--while Spencer and Köhl feel like six weeks have elapsed, for the rest of the universe it has been six months, as evidenced by the fact that the Earth is halfway through its orbit of Sol.  At the terrific (relative to their own life processes) speeds they can achieve, the very stars are in reach, and Spencer decides to abandon the effort to get to Mars and instead explore interstellar space!

Karel Thole contributes a beautiful cover image
 to the 1978 Italian printing of First to the
--I love the colors, the female figure, the
 contrast between the hard straight lines of
 the ship and the eerie curves of the foliage, etc. 
Out among the stars Köhl proves herself just as insubordinate and ambitious as Spencer.  When Spencer nixes her idea of investigating a planet to see if there is any life there (she is a biologist, after all) she grabs a wrench and threatens to smash the "computor" if she doesn't get her way.  Shortly thereafter, when it looks like they will be unable to slow the vessel sufficiently to maneuver among a swarm of planets and are thus wdoomed to die in a crash, Spencer and Köhl confess their love for each other and spend six weeks having sex.  When these six weeks come to an end they, unexpectedly, survive a crash landing on a very wet planet with a breathable atmosphere.

(The number six, especially in reference to periods of time, comes up again and again in the novel, maybe laziness on the part of the author or maybe some kind of clue or symbol?)

The first quarter of the book covers that astronomical and psychological journey.  The second quarter takes place on the marsh-covered planet, where Spencer and Köhl struggle to survive.  Their space ship irretrievably submerged, Spencer builds a hut and raft with stone tools, and Köhl fishes with a line made from her own hair.  Köhl gives birth to their daughter, Eve, and in a plot twist that surprised me, Köhl dies and Spencer loses the will to live!  Fortunately, on the very same black day upon which Köhl expires, insectoid aliens from yet another oxygen atmosphere planet show up and their biologist quickly figures out how to feed little Eve.

The people at isfdb suspect this German
1963 edition is abridged
The aliens, called the Kara, take Spencer and Eve in their space ship to a modern city of skyscrapers, helicopters and hovercars on their home planet, where they raise Eve and have long scientific discussions with Spencer.  These discussions take up years, but don't accomplish much because the Kara have an entirely different view of the universe than Earth scientists do--they don't believe in electrons, for example.  Another problem is that Spencer is unwilling to reveal anything about Earth's location or technology, for fear of a war breaking out between the two species.  (No matter how friendly and pacific the Kara may be, Spencer assumes that Earthmen are all so racist and imperialistic that contact will inevitably lead to war, a war the Earth would lose to the more technologically advanced Kara.) 

Spencer only sees his daughter once a week or so, and she grows up with more in common, culturally at least, with the Kara than with humanity.  When she is thirteen, Eve, at the urging of the aliens, starts pressuring Spencer to tell the Kara where Earth is.  This is bad enough, but Eve also suggests that he have sex with her--the insect people don't want to go without human specimens, and no doubt Eve will want some human companions after her father dies!  Spencer is disgusted and torn--of course incest sickens him, but at the same time, does he want to leave his daughter the only human on a planet of bug-people whom he detests?  "What I knew was that I was going to hate myself whatever I did or did not do...."     

In the event, all these decisions are taken out of Spencer's hands--the Kara dig up his lost space ship on the marsh world and don't need his help after all to figure out where Earth is.  In the last quarter or so of the novel Spencer and Eve take on the role of diplomats trying to forge a peaceful relationship between the Kara and Earth.  A Kara ship takes them to our solar system, where negotiations are conducted via radio; when these negotiations break down, the Kara leave Spencer and Eve on barren Neptune and flee the system.

Back cover of my copy
The defining characteristic of First to the Stars, to my mind at least, is its existential angst.  The whole book is about a guy who is lonely and alienated from those around him, who looks at the future and sees only misery or catastrophe.  The novel is full of lines like "There was nowhere I could go and be welcome on that ship, where nerves were tense and where we were inevitably regarded as aliens..." and "Her remark cast me into a black depression."  When the pioneering astronauts land on the marsh planet, Köhl doubts that life is worth living.  When Köhl dies, Spencer doubts that life is worth living.  Among the insectoids, Spencer is obsessed with a fear that the aliens won't treat him and his daughter like people, but like animals to be put in a zoo, and that Earthmen won't see the Kara as people but monsters to be destroyed.

Despite this we get a more or less happy ending.  Because of those relativistic effects, by the time Spencer is back in the solar system some 200 years have elapsed on Earth, and he finds that the human race is grown rich from exploring and exploiting the solar system and has a level of technology that matches that of the Kara.  An Earth ship rescues him and Eve from Neptune, and he finds that his astronaut pay in the bank has been accumulating interest and so he is rich.  Eve, now among Earthlings, assimilates to human culture and develops a normal, healthy relationship with her father.  A Cold War develops between humanity and the Kara, but each empire colonizes different parts of the galaxy, and a shooting war is avoided.

As well as being a story about alienation, depression and pessimism, First to the Stars is also a traditional SF story in which a guy and his companions use their wits to solve problems and which exposes us readers to lots of astronomical, relativistic, biological, sociological and psychological speculations that probably don't stand up to scrutiny.

First to the Stars is not particularly well written, but the style is acceptable.  The plot is OK, and I like the fact that the novel focuses on Spencer's difficult relationships (with authority, with women, with society and with the universe) and his correlating psychological problems.  I can really get behind a protagonist who is unable to get along with others and thinks life is meaningless, and I can ignore the happy ending just like I always skip the inexplicably and discordantly happy song at the end of The Kinks' Give the People What They Want, an album otherwise about disappointment, perversion, violence and evil.  I'm giving First to the Stars a marginal to moderate recommendation.


First to the Stars, Ace D-405, has two fun pages of ads in the back.

Click or squint to learn about the books Ace was pushing in 1959
"David Grinnell" is a pseudonym of Donald A. Wollheim, one of SF's most important editors and an interesting and somewhat controversial character.

Of the works advertised, I think I have only read A. E. van Vogt's 1946 novella "Siege of the Unseen."  If you are curious about "Siege of the Unseen," stay tuned to this station, as it is scheduled to be discussed in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.  Or, read it yourself under its original title in scans of Astounding at the internet archive! 


  1. I read FIRST TO THE STARS as a kid and thought it was terrific. I grew up reading ACE Doubles so I'm familiar with SEIGE OF THE UNSEEN, too. Looking forward to your review!

    1. Thanks! I'm looking forward to reading that van Vogt again.

  2. I remember rather liking this one too... I read it because I really liked "First on Mars" aka "No Man Friday", which is one of the books in the Ace ads. You need, at the very least, to see the ace cover paintings for "First on Mars" and "First on the Moon". The Sutton book has one of my favorite covers of all time.
    Actually, of the seven books in the ad, I've read five, And I also like them, including the Grinnell title and "First on the Moon", so my endorsement of any book is not to be taken too seriously.

    1. Thanks for sharing your opinions! First to the Stars is definitely better than Yellow Fraction. Maybe I'll pick up First on Mars if I see it.

      I have a soft spot for Wollheim, whose career is so interesting, but I had to pass a negative judgement on the 1957 Grinnell book Across Time...maybe "Grinnell" deserves a second chance and I should look for Edge of Time.