June 18, 2005

Starfarers by Poul Anderson

Pointlike sources of X-rays with radio tails are discovered in a narrow region of the sky. Parallax measurements show them to be five thousand light years distant and these objects seem to be traveling at nearly the speed of light. It becomes gradually clear that they are alien spacecraft. From observations, scientists understand how such near-lightspeed travel is accomplished, and humanity is finally able to cross the vast interstellar distances.

The novel follows the journey of a small group of people who leave our solar system to make contact with these newly discovered aliens. Not only do they face first contact with several new species, but due to relativistic time-dilation they can return only after ten millenia have passed on Earth.

This is a very entertaining book to read, however it suffers from many shortcomings. Despite being published in 1998, the latest offering by veteran sf author Poul Anderson remains firmly in the `old-school' tradition of hard-sf writing. In this novel, when humanity explores the stars there is no delicate balance between manned and unmanned missions. All the exploration is structured in the grand tradition of the Apollo moon missions. There is a captain and a crew and all the other trappings of the more vulgar brand of sf.

Poul Anderson clearly wants to explore the various problems that a band of space travelers would face in their social isolation and the psychological effects of time dilation, however he doesn't present any radical new views on this topic here. Also, in my view the aliens are not interesting enough until the penultimate act of the story where the aliens become much more interesting but at the same time there is silly speculation about mind-body duality and a tacky subplot injected to increase the amount of `action' in the story. The problem of the language barrier is addressed but it isn't tackled in a compelling way. However, despite all its shortcomings, in the final act the novel does contain several interesting speculations and has a satisfying conclusion.

It is instructive to take a look at other hard-sf published around the same time as this novel that take the speed of light seriously in their descriptions of space travel and examine social relations in space travelers in more radical terms, e.g. "Vast" by Linda Nagata and also "Diaspora" by Greg Egan.

%T Starfarers
%A Poul Anderson
%I Tor Books
%D 1998
%G ISBN: 0812545990 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0312860374 (hc)
%P 495
%K science-fiction

Review written: 1999/11/08

Posted by anoop at June 18, 2005 09:26 AM