Consideration of Works Past: Star Bridge

(Picture from here.)

I’ve been looking for this novel for a bit now. Of course, it would have been helpful to know the title or authors. I had vague recollections of the plot and characters: ancient Chinese man, extraterrestrial parrot, faster than light tube system. For some reason, this wasn’t sufficient. I kept getting hits on India’s Classical Logic System, core standard testing, and early flying machines. All of which were cool but not relevant.

I did find the title, finally—and I cannot say for certain which of the innumerable searches I tried actually yielded results. It is a Google mystery.

But I did find it: Star Bridge, Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn, 1955.

Since I’m going to talk about it in some detail, if you don’t want spoilers, stop here. I recommend it for re-reading though it does have its era’s flaws.

Clearly, I didn’t read it when it came out—my mother said I read early but not that early. I found it, and many other novels, when I discovered SF around eleven. I bridged (heh) from comics to SF early and never looked back.

It is worth noting what was going on at that time in my life. My family had moved from Thousand Oaks, California to Huntsville, Alabama. A year before, Martin Luthor King Jr. gave his “I have a dream speech” where he said this:

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

The August we arrived, the bodies of the civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, were discovered. Philadelphia is about a two hundred miles from Huntsville, as the crow flies. George C Wallace was governor. Just the spring before we arrived, King had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Selma to Montgomery marches, and Bloody Sunday, happened the following year.

The following year, Three Lives for Mississippi by William Bradford Huie was published. There was a bookstore we went to regularly—visiting a bookstore was a treat for me.  My father, Earl, asked to get that book. The owner said he’d order it. This went on for some weeks. Then, one day, Earl came in the store and saw the book, all by itself, on the table. The bookstore owner was watching him. Earl bought the book, took it home, and put it in the family safe where he wouldn’t show it to the rest of us. We never saw another copy while we lived there.

I can’t say that everything that happened around me was an influence on how I read books. But this stuff was in the air. On the news. In people’s conversation. That fall, Lyndon Johnson ran for president against Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s slogan was, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” At one point, I went to the movies and bought some soda. The man served me and said, “In your heart, you know it’s ginger ale.” Johnson won in a landslide.

I entered Junior High School—as unpleasant an experience as anything in my life. I was still considered too young to read in the adult section of the library so I started at one end of the science fiction section and worked my way to the other end—which didn’t take too long. I think I ran into Star Bridge during that process.

Like a lot of these books, SF hit me hard at that age. Not has hard as From Here to Eternity—I had figured out how to slip past the guardians upstairs in the adult section—but hard enough. Unlike some—I’m looking at you Farnham’s Freehold and The FittestStar Bridge didn’t make me question my own taste and intelligence on rereading.

Did the times surrounding the reading inform the impact of those books? Or do I remember the impact of the books because of the time? I have no idea.

So. Enough about me. Let’s talk about the book.

Star Bridge is one of those books that seems to have unexpected influence on the people that read it. Both Samuel R. Delany and Edward Bryant said this was the book that introduced them to SF. It is not a great book. Essentially, it follows a formula of one man against a tyranny, overcoming all obstacles to put the world on the path to freedom. We’ve seen this trope from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Demolition Man to Firefly.

In this world, there is the empire world Eron that has subjugated all competition. Eron has discovered the secret of the Tube: a connection mechanism between devices in disparate star systems. In normal space, relativistic speeds must be observed. But transit within the Tube takes three hours regardless of distance. Tube ships travel to a target space and set up a Tube station in normal time and then, once connected, Eron soldiers come in and take over. The transit time in normal space somewhat ignored since light takes a fair amount of time between even local star systems. But Eron has been around for a long time. Eronians—a word that is never used—have a mutation giving them a golden skin. This is attributed to their racial success both in the empire and in creating the Tubes.

Eron is essentially governed in a sort of corporate feudalism where the Directors of particular capabilities are the Lords. In this current iteration, the General Manager—Garth Kohlnar, the king—is nearing death from natural causes. There will be an inevitable succession conflict when he dies. His daughter, Wendre Kohlnar, is Director of Communications and a possible heir.

Into this comes Alan Horne, a mercenary. He’d fought for the Cluster, a freedom loving star cluster where the stars were close enough not to need a Tube. The Cluster had been crushed by Eron and in celebration a new Tube was to be connected on its ruins: the city of Denver. Horne is commissioned to assassinate the General Manager at this dedication.

Along the way, Horne meets Wu, a near immortal Chinese man, whose constant companion is an extraterrestrial shapeshifter that preferentially takes the form of a bedraggled parrot, Lil. Lil’s favorite food is diamonds. Wu and Lil are also going to the dedication. That’s where the diamonds are. Wu gets Horne to the dedication and then runs off. Horne assassinates the General Manager. He can’t escape the way he came so he infiltrates the city, thinking to escape off world.

At one point, of course, Horne meets Wendre, holding her hostage until he escapes her—but not before saving her from her own assassin’s bullet.

Horne escapes to Eron—all Tubes lead to Eron and that is where all Tubes end—where he again encounters Wu as head of the Entropy Cult. The Cult is a religion of liberation that is only waiting for the right opportunity.

Horne is captured and sent to Vantee Prison, a supposedly inescapable facility.

Now, all through this has been reference to the Liberator, Peter Sair, a charismatic leader from the Cluster whose very name can unite the oppressed. He is being held in Vantee. When Horne escapes, he takes Sair with him. Revolution ensues.

Wu has been helping Horne all along. At this point of climax, Wu reveals he’s been manipulating things from the beginning, from the founding Eron to this moment. Lil is the matrix by which the Tube is created and maintained. Wu is going to kill Horne but is distracted by Wendre. Horne kills Wu. Lil disappears. Later, Wu’s body does as well. Wendre ends up with Horne and the empire falls but the Tube is kept intact.

Okay. Pretty tame stuff when I write it here. The Wikipedia article on it is more detailed.

But the book has a structural wrinkle I haven’t mentioned. At the beginning of each chapter, there is an interlude essays by someone referred to as the Historian that gives perspective on the action. It’s the Historian that puts Eron in context. Puts Horne in context. Puts empires in context. And, at the end, the Historian is obviously Wu, kept alive by Lil. Wu was the man who paid Horne to be the assassin. He was the leader of the Entropy Cult. He was Peter Sair. He is the master manipulator of history.

At the end, the book ponders the purpose of this and reveals that just a short time later came a plea for help from the Silent Stars: a place where people had gone to colonize and were never heard from again.

Star Bridge came out in 1955, as I said. Asimov’s Foundation series came out in serialized form beginning in 1942 and then as the trilogy beginning in 1951. It is impossible that Gunn and Williamson were unaware of those books. In a way, Star Bridge is a counter example or possibly a critique of Foundation. Foundation has a master plan for civilization devised by Hari Seldon and managed by the Second Foundation. The Eron Empire was created and managed by Wu, an immortal being.

I recently reread Foundation but not the rest of the books—which is why I haven’t commented on it here—and it is, essentially, a collection of braided stories. Star Bridge is a novel where the action is placed within a historical context. These are two approaches to the same end: the manipulation of human history. It’s not isolated to these works. Both Marvel and DC comics have played in that same sandbox. So have I, for that matter, in God’s Country. It’s fertile ground.

Star Bridge has its flaws. The only woman in it is Wendre and she has little agency. Horne is one of those B level actors with the width of character from A to B. Of course, they end up together. Statements about women and men are just about as cringeworthy as you can imagine.

Wu is the best defined character in the novel. He is Chinese only in appearance—although, after fifteen hundred years, one would expect one’s original heritage to be outweighed by one’s experience. His initial appearance is grotesquely racist: broken English and carrying a suitcase showing a laundry logo. He discards that stereotype almost immediately as his age and power become more and more manifest.

Star Bridge is one of those novels that aches to be rewritten with modern sensibilities—like Shang-Chi has been reinvented from the son of Fu Manchu to the more interesting take being done in the film. Star Bridge is ripe for that.

Hear that, Hollywood? Go for it!

Until that happens, it’s worth a read.

 

 

 

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