When I was but a wee young lad, I was browsing the shelves of my local library and came across a certain book. Intrigued by the title and cover illustration, I checked it out and ended up enjoying it greatly. Recently, I saw a copy of this selfsame book on sale for quite a low price, and decided to pick it up. I remembered how much I liked it as a kid; but now, as an adult with so much more experience of great works of the genre, will it still hold up? Let’s stare at The Black Sun, by Jack Williamson.
In the near future, humankind’s Project Starseed uses faster-than-light quantum-wave technology to send colonists to distant star systems. When the ninety-ninth – and final – ship lands on a bleak and icy world in the shadow of a dead star, the future looks grim for the colonists. First an exploration party disappears without a trace. Soon the colonists are besieged by sabotage and deadly conflict. Meanwhile, though billions of years have passed without life on the iceworld, the arrival of the humans has set something astir. This mysterious entity will determine the fate of the ship, and of a world poised between death and eternity.
Source: the back of the book
Right away, I realized that the book probably wasn’t as great as my faint childhood memories of it. The plot, which had struck me at the time as so original and fascinating, now seemed faintly cliche. Indeed, as I was re-reading it, I could not help but to continually draw parallels with the abysmal Lost in Space film (coincidentally released the year after this book came out). Colony ships launched from a dying Earth? Saboteur sent to destroy ship ends up getting stuck on board? Ship travels far into the future as well as to an unknown location in distant space? Landing amidst snow and ice on an inhospitable planet? Well, at least give the book some credit: it doesn’t have a legion of spiiiiiiiiders or an abominable CGI monkey.
But on the other hand, at least in Lost in Space, Dr. Smith saved Judy’s life, thus giving a reason for the Robinson family to spare his life. Roak tries to blow up the ship with a bomb; and instead of being thrown out an airlock without a suit, he gets allowed to join the crew for no particular reason.
Then there’s the cliche that the psychic aliens can only communicate with the youngest child in the cast. I’ve seen this done before many times, in many ways: quite well in Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, and quite badly in Odyssey by Jack McDevitt. Usually, there’s some flimsy justification as to why the aliens are choosing to route all their psychic transmissions through prepubescent moppets who, while adorable, have no authority or credibility. The reason given in this case is that Me Me has to communicate through Day because it’s easier for children to acquire new languages. The actual reason is, of course, to have everything the aliens say filtered through someone the adults won’t believe, thus preventing the plot from being resolved much quicker.
Speaking of quickness, another issue is that most of the book’s narrative urgency ends up being unnecessary. For most of the story, it seems critical that the characters rush to Skyhold with all possible speed, for Me Me is under siege by winged black shadows. One gets the sense that there are two alien forces at work: Me Me, who is beckoning the human colonists for aid; and the shadows, who are threatening her. As it turns out, however, the shadows were never real; just an ancient racial memory which got mixed up with Me Me’s telepathic call. So really, there was no need to hurry at all – the characters could have taken the trip to Skyhold at a leisurely stroll, and nothing would have changed. It kind of drains away a lot of the tension when you read it with that it mind.
And finally, one more minor quibble. Me Me goes by the name of Day’s stuffed panda because her name has no English translation. Earlier, however, the memories experienced by Kip suggested that it was possible to translate the names to human equivalents: Watcher, Wave Rider, Far Diver, and so forth. But that’s just a nitpick, not something I’d actually dock the story points over.
So no, the book isn’t as good as I thought it was when I was a youth. But even so, there was plenty of enjoyable stuff in it. I was exaggerating before: it isn’t really anywhere near as bad as Lost in Space. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s decent enough that I feel comfortable recommending it.
Final Rating: 3/5