Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, November 3, 2011

1988: Federation World (White, James)

Dry dialogue and lube-less action (2/5)

I'm a big James White fan. His Sector General series is a eye-widening look at a huge array of exotic aliens and how they cope with their interactions in times of calm and chaos. While the dialogue is often quite droll and the predicaments predictable, James White still injects some fun into the novels, Final Diagnosis (1997) being the best part of the series that I've read. Lesser know are James White's non-Sector General novels... and of which I've been after for years since reading Final Diagnosis. I've now read 7 of the 11 and I can say that they generally tend to be better written than the Sector General books.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Federation of Galactic Sentients had a mission. As new planets and species were discovered and assessed, the deserving of their populations were invited to move en masse to the fabulous Federation World, a modified Dyson Sphere located in the galactic core.
But not all of the Federation inductees were suited to the idyllic life of the World. Martin and Beth were two of he rare ones chosen instead for the demanding job of First Contact. Their training was extensive, but all too soon the two Earth-humans were out on their own with all of the amazing technology of the Federation at their command.
Martin knew that training was no substitute, for experience. In First Contact, his first mistake would likely be his last..."

White's non-Sector General novels of The Watch Below (1966), Tomorrow is Too Far (1971), and The Dream Millennium (1974) are all maturely written with shared attributes of thoughtfulness and uniqueness- very clever stuff. On the opposite of the coin, there is the dud novel of Lifeboat (1972) which read like an emergency pamphlet on an airplane- dry and informative. Along similar lines, Federation World comes off as dry and informative.

Federation World isn't a fix-up novel but it certainly reads like one.
1) After Martin and Beth have been selected as First Contact specialists and go through their training, they are prepared for their first mission (38 pages).
2) Visiting a bipedal, four-armed race with a master/slave society bent of matters of "hearsay," Martin must decide whether of not to allow the society to continue as is or to instruct the leaders to change course in order to meet demands for Citizenship appraisal (55 pages).
3) Immediately after this intervention, Martin and Beth must appraise the elusive intelligent subterranean life on a vacation-like planet: breezy, bountiful and eerily quite. The xenophobic burrowers have no sight and rely merely upon their heightened sense of touch for communication, subterranean navigation and technology (55 pages).
4) The next 135 pages, or nearly half of the entire novel rest with the contact made on a planet already visited by the Federation. Martin and Beth are to re-assess those who still dwell on the planet three generations after the initial contact, descendants of the once Undesirables. Indeed, what Martin witnesses on the planet is an de-evolution of society from the Undesirables. This race, hard-lining the need to return obligations, teeters on the brink of self-destruction.

While five aliens are on the cover of the novel, only three are covered with the most inventive being the burrowers. The other aliens have their quirks but ultimately don't seem alien enough. They have human ideas, human reflections in their speech and are easy to converse with. I've always had a problem with books which treated translation of alien languages as a simple delineation of logic from a few given words. Ugh, what a crock! Even some Earth languages are difficult to translate to English, and those are both terrestrial! So I hate the way White handles the language with such ease as having the computer translate everything into impeccable yet dearly dry English. The dialogue alone kills any enjoyment of this novel.

One additional factor that capsizes the enjoyment of Federation World is the inclusion of an action lengthener, such as "Wait, we have another problem.." or "Oh, one more thing....". It seems like a cascade of folly for the the hopeless First Contact specialists. Pragmatic and tactful as they are, you wouldn't want to invite them to a dinner party as they'd just drag it out to a ridiculous degree and bore you the entire time.

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