Search the Sky

search the skySearch the Sky is a jointly-authored novel by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl.  I am not a very big fan of Pohl’s writing, so at the outset, I  was probably not giving a totally fair shot to the novel.  It was published in 1954.  I read the paperback version with Richard Powers artwork. I bought my copy for a $1 at a local book hovel.

Well, overall I do not think this is a very good novel. The book really takes some time to get started; I feel like the first three chapters are very much spinning their wheels and not really directed anywhere specific. The reader is introduced to the main character, Ross, and his restlessness and struggle with living on Halsey’s Planet and working for Oldham Trading Company. Straightaway in the novel, we are told how disgruntled Ross is with his life and how the civilization on Halsey’s Planet is in “decay.”

Now, when I think of “in decay” I am thinking of some post-apocalyptic scene with weed-grasses growing in pavement, deserted buildings, mushrooms growing out of ex-living things, and nary a human in sight. I suppose some of that is sort of what is being described, but not to the same extent.  Basically, we are to understand that this planet’s civilization seems to have peaked and is now in a decline – how steep that decline is, is rather unclear.  Ross (who is melodramatic as all get out) seems to think it is very steep.

So the first 45 pages, or so, of this novel seem to not have a proper direction. We meet melodramatic Ross, but there are little scenes that take place that do not advance the storyline and sometimes seem to derail it. Several times I figured that a particular trajectory would be taken but it was ignored or forgotten. Penguin, Bantam, and Baen also republished this novel – though, one of the authors was deceased by then, the other author may have had the opportunity to edit it. Frankly, I would want to see this whole opening chunk edited and anything not truly related to the storyline should be excised.

Finally in chapter five, the storyline picks up and marches along what the reader has been expecting all along:  the faster-than-light spacecraft headed to exotic planets. Of course, not too exotic, this version of the kosmos seems to be populated mainly by humans. So, Ross and his ship head spaceward to visit a predetermined list of planets.  His mission is to discover the status of these planets – for the purposes of trade and for monitoring the “level of civilization” of humanity. We do not even get to see the first planet and join Ross as he lands on Gemser, the second planet on his list.

Everything the Internet says about the remainer of this novel is more or less true. Yes, the rest of it does seem like little, loosely-connected segments that show the reader interesting “infographics” of the planets that Ross visits. And if there is anything one reads on the Internet about this novel, it is that it is so very satirical.  Most of the people commenting on the novel online are people who have read the novel since 2000. So, there is a bit of a timeline scenario in that most reviewers did not read this when it was originally published. Living in the 1950s may have given this novel a different reader response; faster-than-light spacecraft, human civilizations stagnating, and gender equality all have a very different feel to them in 1955 versus 2016. Therefore, I think that this novel, being read nowadays, needs to be read with a sort of nuanced viewpoint.

The overarching premise is quite interesting to me. I like the idea of launching a character out into the galaxy to learn/re-learn about the status of human civilization on distant planets and to re-establish FTL science or jump-start their trading/commerce. Okay, this is a little ridiculous because this is a tall order for one fellow. And yes, it is a bit space opera-esque, zooming around the planets in this way. However, given a little tidying, this is not a horrific story-starter.

Instead, the authors approach these distant planets via Ross with a remarkably heavy-handed style. Certainly, we should all read this as satirical (Cp. Gulliver’s Travels or something), but I have never liked satire that was like a bludgeon.

So, the next two planets Ross visits are treated with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. In places, the writing is even cringe-worthy. There are, of course, some sections that are interesting and have potential for something more, but generally, this is heavy-handed direct satire that does not really pause to ever ask “what if?” or “how come, Hoss?”

One of the wretched things about this novel is that Ross, though he does not start off as a favored, honorable, awesome character, seems to degenerate into an impulsive, juvenile, melodramatic clown.  It is really wearying by the last few chapters and I rather wanted to punch his teeth out.

The last segment of the novel is not very good whatsoever and I had to muscle through it. It is confusing and disjointed throughout.  The “resolution” is really vague, idiotic, and also heavy-handed. The characters by the end are insufferable. And even if the reader considers some of the novel’s satirical points favorably, there still is not enough depth to make this a meaningful heavyweight of science fiction.

It has some good points. It has a lot of bad areas. Ultimately, it has not really aged well and does not give a lot of reason for recommendation. I blame it all on Pohl.

2 stars

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