Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

1963: The Reefs of Space (Pohl, Frederik & Williamson, Jack)

 Great premise lacking detail and follow-through (3/5)

The collaboration of the science fiction greats of Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson rivals other such duos: Pohl & Kornbluth, Niven & Pournelle, Pratchett & Gaiman, gin & tonic, and sloppy & joe. All renowned for being fine examples of collaborative efforts, but from this reviewer's experience, doubling the effort doesn't always doubly yield. Take for example Pohl & Williamson's Farthest Star (1975): starts with a great premise, lacks in follow up of interesting details, then includes scientific anarchisms and dragons. This sort of rings a bell with The Reefs of Space (minus the dragons), a 1964 serialization of three stories printed in late 1963.

Rear cover blurb:
"The team of Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson combines two of the top writers in the field of science fiction. In the REEFS OF SPACE, this has produced a tale brimming with the ingenuity, inventiveness and satiric commentary characteristic of the great classic adventure tales of science fiction. To science fiction fans, this is like a joyous coming home, to new readers, the book will be a fresh and exciting discovery."

Though the novel itself isn't divided into three distinct parts, the novel still manifests its "stitch-up" heritage through the plot's choppy flow. The first 90 pages of the 188 page book contain the first distinct setting, which sets the tone for the entire novel: Steven Ryeland awakes after three days of interrogation and detention with very little memory of his past and murky details of the examiner's questions. His affiliation to the physicist Ron Donderevo is unclear but his descent to the rank of Risk is made clear by the explosive ring around his neck. Ryeland is imprisoned and given the orders to develop a "jetless drive" for the Machine, an all-knowing computational tyrant organizing and directing the affairs of thirteen billion people, a process known as "The Plan of Man." This Plan is often whittled down to the phrase, "To each his own job--and his job only." Guarded by the military sporting "radar horns," a proximity deterrent to Ryeland's explosive fuse, Ryeland delves into the mystery of an inertia-less creature which resides in the Reefs of Space beyond the orbit of Pluto and is also detained in the Machine earthly prison. Obviously countering the mathematic certainty of Newton's third law of thermodynamics, Ryeland discovers that the secret to the creatures inertia-less movement to be powered by a crystal node within its nervous system.

The next 50-page story is a drastic jump from the first, where Ryeland has been played the pawn between the unseen power struggle of General Fleemer, overseer of the project, and The Planner, a trustful human who steers the Machine. Accused of treason and sabotage, Ryeland is shipped off to Cuba, one location of the Machine's Body Banks. The Risks residing in the Body Banks are fed sedatives as they are gradually taken apart, piece by piece, for transplantation to an unknown recipient. Ryeland soon possesses a hand-me-down journal penned by D.W.H., which inspires him to escape in a similar manner, if he can live long enough without losing too many body parts to the Bank.

And the remaining 48 pages are yet another drastic jump from the plot: In his eleventh-hour after his failed attempt at escape, Ryeland is rescued and taken aboard a ship powered by the same inertia-less creature he studied all those months ago. The Reefs of Space are seen as a haven from the tyrannical Machine, a region of freedom beyond the sphere of suppression, which is the main reason the Machine wants to "jetless drive." Too far for a propellant systems, the inertia-less drive will allow the machine to conquer the Reefs and conform all who wish to reside there under its nebulous Plan of Man. The Reefs have fauna and flora with "enormous lovely flowers that shone with uncanny colors", "a kind of golden vine that struck back with high-voltage", and "innocent little pods that squirted jets of radioactive isotopes." (51)

The first half of the book, which is primarily the first 90 pages and the first story, is an excellent 4- or 5-star start to a novel. The world-building is rich with the inclusion of the nebulous Plan of Man, the shrouded (benevolent?) Machine, and the system of communication between the humans and the Machine. The binary digital computer requires laborious encoding, taping, and decoding of information, yet the Machine still transmits actions and information through the "teletape" machines, a type of tickertape terminal found in every room in which any person can key in their request. The entire system has the aura of 1984, possibly giving a nod towards "thoughtcrime" ("Nobody can argue with the machine! [73]) and "doublespeak" ("[...] is was plain as the fact that two plus two is four." [179]).

Some additional quirks are of interest, but only adds light spice to an already well-seasoned story. Keeping in mind the population of earth is thirteen billion, it seems Pohl and Williamson kept this in mind even when writing in simple details to the story: "He ate the last dry beef algae sandwich, and the last bitter drops of cold yeast coffee" (180) It's a minor but amusing detail. One recurrent detail but unexplored theme are the "Togetherness" girls in the laboratory/prison where Ryeland is incarcerated. These girls are cheerful, optimistic, and seem to be on the same sedative drugs as the prisoners in the Body Banks. As they name suggests, their optimistic nature is a glue which keeps the engineers stuck to their work and vision. There's no detail regarding the nature of the robotic-like Togetherness girls, but it's just one of the things which are of interest in The Reefs of Space.

As it reads above, the greater setting of The Reefs of Space is grand. However, the transitions between the three parts is too abrupt. Just when the laboratory/prison environment is becoming lurid and lush, Ryeland is jetted off to the Body Bank. Once the Body Bank setting is becoming sinister and depressing, Ryeland is sprung off planet to the Reefs. Once there, the story takes on a sort of cheesy space horror montage. The earthly realm of the Machine with its Plan of Man is what is really captivating about the Reefs of Space, how Ryeland can contribute his discoveries for the benefit of the Machine's nebulous Plan, and how the existence of the Reefs affect the Plan.

In regards to scientific anarchisms, the universe in which The Reefs of Space exists is set in a steady-state universe (ala the Infinite Universe theory, circa 1948), where hydrogen gas is constantly being produced and the stars continually being developed from this gas... this opposes the Big Bang theory which triumphs in 1965 discover of cosmic microwave background radiation. The steady-state is important to some of the questions posed by Ryeland and his "jetless drive" so it's also important to the plot. The suspension of belief is easier than when reading the early works E.E. "Doc" Smith.

If the remaining of the Starchild series (Starchild and Rogue Star) would focus on the earth-based Machine and its Plan, then the series might be worth the read. But, I see that the series doesn't continue with the somewhat likable Ryeland, with his intelligence and vague history. Just as the end of the The Reefs of Space was jerky, the remaining series seems just as illy thrown together.


  1. Great review. I read this one a few years back, and my assessment was somewhat similar... great premise, jerky setting changes (remnants of its serial roots), a bit over-the-top. The comparison to "Doc" Smith is apt; the Reefs trilogy is like combining the Orwellian dystopia with '30s pulp.

    Starchild shares the same setting, but somehow it lost much of its texture--no Body Bank or things of its ilk--becoming rather bland. Rogue Star advanced the chronology by several hundred years, and had a very interesting world, but is the weakest of the trilogy... I almost didn't finish it.

  2. "Orwellian dystopia with '30s pulp" - though I mention it, you put it so nicely. I'll be giving the rest of the trilogy a pass. Have you read the other two Pohl/Williamson collaborations: Cuckoo and Undersea?

    1. I haven't read any of their other collaborations, alas. At this point I tend to avoid anything with Pohl's name on it, unless it was preceded with "Edited by."

    2. Haha, that's great! Welcome to the club, the triad!!! I still have Pohl's A Plague of Pythons, like Mr. Ruminations, and The Cool War... which has an irksome cover, to say the least. Pohl DID edit Nightmare Age (1971) anthology and it was much, much better than the more recent Wastelands anthology by J.J. Adams.

  3. Didn't I warn you about this one? But yes, great review -- I came to a similar (less articulate) conclusion when I read and reviewed it a few years back....

    I also want to read the juvenile Undersea trilogy....

  4. I need no warning when it comes to a Pohl novel, but I don't recall your words of wisdom/warning. I remember you picked up his Plague of Pythons, which I also have... anxious to get around to that?

  5. Haha, no, not very anxious considering our mutual hatred of a majority of his works....