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Brass Tak: Stargate by Stephen Robinett

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

I had been reading science fiction for four or five years before I actually ran across any of the science fiction magazines. I was aware that they existed, and was extremely interested in reading them, but never saw them in bookstores. I now attribute this to the fact that bookstores generally put genre magazines with the magazines and not with the books (where I had been looking for them), and also to the fact that I wasn’t super-bright.

Anyway, when I finally found the magazines, I was a little disappointed. The first one I bought, which is still around the house somewhere, was the F&SF for December 1973. It had an adventure novelet (sic) by Jack Williamson and a more literary piece by a new-to-me author named James Tiptree jr.– “The Women Men Don’t See” was the more-ironic-than-I-knew title. Other stories included an entertaining Shelley-esque pastiche by Gary Jennings, and Richard Lupoff’s “12:01 P.M.”, which still seems to me the most nightmarish horror story I’ve ever read. Then there were the features: a snarky film review by Baird Searles, a science article by my then-hero Isaac Asimov and a cartoon by someone named Gahan Wilson, surely one of the greatest Wilsons of this or any other age. So any complaints I had were not about content. No, it was just that the thing was so cheaply made: the coarse brownish paper on which it was printed was particularly off-putting; the digest size seemed strange–neither booklike nor magaziney. I bought it, read it, enjoyed it, kept it, soon was a subscriber to the magazine, but I was dissatisfied. It didn’t match the shining Platonic ideal I’d somehow formed of genre magazines. Now I know I was looking for something like the luminously maculate pages of Black Gate, but back then all I knew was that there was a painful gap between the real and the ideal, a lesson I’ve been forgetting and relearning ever since.

[More voyages in shelf-discovery beyond the jump.]

_____

The next genre magazine I ran across was Analog, which looked more like my ideal, particularly when Frank Kelly Freas was doing the cover. Analog‘s fiction was usually less to my taste than F&SF‘s, but one thing they did better was serials: there was almost always a serial running in Analog and I soon became addicted to them.

Now that I am fierce and bald and short of breath I (a.) send glum heroes up the line to death, but also, and more relevantly, (b.) find it hard to explain the appeal of serials. Take a then-standard-length novel of 60-75 thousand words. Chop it into three parts and dole them out at monthly intervals. A reading experience that could have lasted a couple hours is spread out over as much as three months. Maybe that’s it: serials prolonged the experience, heightened suspense. That may be part of it. But many things about the 70s remain mysterious, even to those of us who suffered through them. Why did people wear bell-bottoms and wide polyester ties that would disgrace a clown-suit? Why did the radio so frequently play disco instead of music? Why was everything so damn mellow? It all looks so ill-advised now.

But without question the novel that addicted me to serial fiction was Analog‘s summer serial from 1974, Stargate by Tak Hallus. Except it wasn’t really by Tak Hallus at all: eventually the author dropped his false whiskers and started publishing under his real name, Stephen Robinett. The word “takhallus” is apparently used in Farsi and other languages to mean “pseudonym”, which seems sufficient justification to me. Robinett reportedly dropped the moniker because Harry Harrison casually remarked in conversation, “That pen-name is ugly, ugly, UGLY!” Eh. All I can say is that I never found “Stephen Robinett” as engaging or as memorable as “Tak Hallus”.

Stargate was part of an ongoing series–another type of fiction I am addicted to with being fully able to explain why–about Jenson displacement gates, essentially matter transmitters. The narrator/hero(?) is a low-level engineer named Robert Collins who, first thing in the story, gets fired. Then, for no very clear reason, he is tapped to head one of the most important engineering projects in the history of human civilization, the completion of the Jenson Gate which will give humankind access to interstellar distances. He fulfills the project while also becoming entangled in the investigation of his predecessor’s death. In the end he is also tasked with saving the solar system from destruction by a giant crab, wherein he utterly and ignominiously fails, although as it turns out the solar system is not destroyed anyway. He pauses occasionally to banter or bicker with a relatively varied cast of characters including Scarlyn Smith (an omnicompetent man of the Heinlein sort, now past retirement age), his live-in girlfriend and sometime legal advisor Dolores Gonzales, assorted astronomers, space pirates and megalomaniacs dead and alive.

I’m not sure if the review sounds like a rave or a knife-job, at this point–which is perfect, because what the book deserves is something of both. The book, as unpretentious genre fiction, has remarkable virtues and just as remarkable defects. If I’d been reviewing the book in 1974 I might have said that it was a work of great promise. I’d've been wrong. Robinett wrote a few more sf stories, one more sf novel (apparently a mashup of two long stories) and drifted out of the field. He published a couple of mysteries and then fell silent. (He died in 2004, from complications of Hodgkins Disease, a bit of cheer which is only now spreading in genre circles.)

Stargate has a lot going for it, starting with the tone. It’s light, direct, a little mannered in its self-conscious wittiness. It reminds me of the great screwball comedies from the 1930s, like Bringing Up Baby. This will drive some people nuts, and if so they should not read this book, but I liked it.

Another thing in the book’s favor is its characterization. It’s not deep, plumbing the unsuspected depths of the engineer’s soul (or the lawyer’s, or the whatever’s). The figures are drawn in fairly broad strokes, and many of them will be already familiar or over-familiar to readers of sf, especially readers of Heinlein and Niven. Horace Merryweather, the genial sky-minded tycoon behind the Stargate project, is not Heinlein’s D.D. Harriman. But you can imagine them sitting on the same corporate boards. Scarlyn Smith is not quite Woodrow Wilson Smith (a.k.a. “Lazarus Long”)… but the echo in their names and identities is unmistakable. Robinett is using these character-tropes deliberately and thoughtfully and it’s interesting to see what he does with them. Even minor characters like the obstructionist middle-manager Duff get moments where they are sympathetic, humanized–even right, where the heroes (?) are wrong.

The mystery plot is fairly well-realized, too, even though it has a crazy person as its motive engine. The craziness is well-documented, almost rational–certainly believable. The story in general moves along swiftly. The future-engineering issues are central to the plot, not just window-dressing, and there is some very then-topical stuff about fusion reactors using high-powered lasers. Practical fusion power, as we knew then, was only forty years away. (It still is.)

The background to the story is a struggle between two corporate moguls. One mogul has a star-hopping drone fleet that strip-mines unseen worlds for their minerals without any human judgement or discretion. He’s the villain. The other seeks a method to do the same thing–only faster and cheaper, reaching even farther, destroying even more worlds. The heroes work for this guy.

It’s to Robinett’s credit that he addresses how creepy this could be. His narrator, Collins, talks to Smith about the morality of the project and it turns into what is now called a teachable moment about the amorality of science and technology. Inventions aren’t right or wrong, says Smith, only the use we put them to.

This satisfied me as a teenager, but it doesn’t now. Both Collins’ question and Smith’s answer are an evasion. The relevant question is whether their specific use of the stargate is moral, and I think the answer there is clearly “no.” If they don’t destroy another civilization, firing blindly across interstellar distances to rip sections from unseen worlds, it’s only by accident. Collins’ law-student girlfriend needs to explain to him the concept of reckless endangerment. But, even if they luck out and don’t kill any so-called sophonts, the practice assumes that the only function or value of a world is to provide certain raw materials for industry. At best, this seems short-sighted.

One thing that bothered me, even on my first reading, was another question: why fire blind? Why not send a probe through so that you know what (and, potentially, who) you are ripping away to alien space? For that matter, why not send a ship (manned or unmanned) through? To get a better aim, or just for the hell of it– or, oh I don’t know, to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly split infinitives where no infinitive has been split before. But this notion never comes up. And that’s so weird. For a science fiction novel operating on an interstellar scope, it seems strangely uninterested in the interstellar scope.

While I’m whining about this and that, I might as well mention another detail that bothered me about the book. Some of the action takes place on the space-station which is the construction shack of the stargate; while there the hero (?) Collins and others have phone conversations with people back on Earth. This station is twenty million miles or so away from Earth. Even assuming perfect speed of light transmission for the messages, there would still be almost four minutes of lag time between each exchange. This would create some awkward pauses in a conversation–in fact, would prevent them from being a conversation and would make them more into an exchange of video correspondence. Robinett just ignores the lightspeed limit–even though the concept of the lightspeed limit on interstellar distances is crucial to his plot. There’s a way around this without changing the story too much: instead of old-fashioned 20th century visiphones with electronic transmissions, these could be new-fangled 21st century visiphones fitted with tachyon relays. Tachyon technology is crucial to building the stargate, so it comes up in the book. But Robinett makes no use of it to smooth over this wrinkle, if he is even aware of it. That looks like inattention or indifference–bad worldmaking, I would say, if this were a fantasy novel.

As a fast-moving story set in a nearish future (which looks increasingly remote nowadays), this novel is a success. To its credit, it tries to be something more. In the book’s climactic scene, the hero (?) has the chance to defeat the villain’s plot to destroy the solar system. To do so, he will have to commit an act of violence (i.e., shoot someone). He doesn’t, on something like principle. The solar system is not destroyed because the villain’s deranged plot was ineptly conceived, but that’s no credit to the hero, who thought that it would work.

There’s a sort of Taoistic “all action is futile” paradoxical force to this resolution, so I can’t say that it’s exactly a failure. But it does make the protagonists’ frenzied action in the last third of the story seem somewhat… well, futile.

For its merits, I enjoyed the serial tremendously back in ’74, and the nature of serial publication may have diminished the problematic impact of the ending. What I wanted then, and I find that I still want now, is to see this journeyman writer ascend to mastery in his craft.

Now I know that hope is delusory–but at least I don’t have to wear bell-bottoms as I wait.

5 Comments »

  1. Very interesting read, James, despite my never having heard of the story or the author. Amazing how much — and how many — are forgotten with the passage of time.

    Comment by Bill Ward - August 6, 2009 8:05 am

  2. Thanks! Genre publishing changed a lot at the end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s, and some people got lost in the shuffle. It’s changing again now, of course, even more so, and I think there might be another memory gap before and after Right About Now.

    Comment by James Enge - August 6, 2009 5:25 pm

  3. A very good review of a very good story.

    I also stumbled upon Analog Magazine in 1974 (I was 13 at the time), and Stargate was the first Serial I read. Interestingly enough, I later became an engineer. And eventually a ‘project troubleshooter’ in the fashion of Scarlyn Smith (or so I would like to hope…), darkening the doorsteps of many of the largest tech firms in Silicon Valley.

    It is possible, in some small way, that story influenced my career.

    (And for the record, I Still own those issues of Analog, 35 years later)

    Comment by psychomike - February 13, 2010 4:39 am

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