I love a book that from time to time you set down on your lap, if you can put it down, and say “Wow,” in a quiet but admiring voice. Starburst is a book like that. The multiplicity of complex ideas that Frederik Pohl worked into a single narrative, along with irresistibly rising tension (the collapse of civilization, the absolutely untenable situation of the astronauts) and fascinating characters makes for a marvel of science fiction. I’ve always felt that Fred’s books make one think about the meaning of what it is to be human.
Phil Plait said, appropriately enough in an article about planets, that science does not need hard-and-fast definitions, but concepts.* In Starburst, Fred expands that concept, and with it the reader’s mind. Who wouldn’t like to see what one is capable of achieving or becoming, given no interruptions whatsoever? What actually limits one? And, at what point does one become something else? Is there an answer to the question of how far is too far to let an experiment go? Can you really sacrifice the few for the needs of the many? (That ethical dilemma is faced daily, but seldom in such an extreme, far-reaching way and almost never by a man who is willing to take full responsibility for doing it.) And what happens if the many decide they don’t need the few?
You have to love the touches of wry humor that season his writing. Fred’s characters are not idealized. They are so very human. The failings that hold them back in some ways propel them in others. If it seems as if their various strengths dovetail too completely, don’t worry. Fred would never fall back on cliché. Not only could I not guess from the beginning of the book where the story would end, I couldn’t possibly foresee the various mind-bending stops along the way. Turning the pages to discover them was and is a delight every time I reread Starburst.
* “Why Size Matters,” Discover Magazine, Dec. 2010, pp. 58-62.
Jody Lynn Nye can be found online at jodynye.com
- What’s your Favorite Frederik Pohl novel?
- Mike Resnick: The Way the Future Was
- Harry Harrison: The Space Merchants
- Vernor Vinge: Slave Ship
- Joe Haldeman: The Space Merchants
- Neil Gaiman: The Age of the Pussyfoot
- Cory Doctorow: The Space Merchants
- David Brin: Wolfbane
- James E. Gunn: Gateway and The Space Merchants
- Gregory Benford & Elisabeth Malatre: Man Plus
- Larry Niven: The Age of the Pussyfoot
- Ben Bova: The Space Merchants
- Phyllis Eisenstein: The Space Merchants