Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

1985: Black Star Rising (Pohl, Frederik)

A steed of a start... followed by horse apples (2/5)
From April 6, 2010

Written in the time between Pohl's Heechee Rendezvous (1984) and his widely known satirical Merchant's War (1986), one would expect Black Star Rising (1985) to retain some aspects of his former greatness, as in the popular Man Plus (1976) or Gateway (1977). However, Pohl seems to have led himself astray with this one-off novel like he did with another one-off novel in the 1980s: Syzygy (1982). Both flopped.

Rear cover synopsis:
"When a mysterious alien spacecraft approaches the Earth and demands to speak with the President of the United States, then destroys a large Pacific island to demonstrate its strength and its seriousness, you'd expect the President to talk. Problem is, in the late twenty-first century, there is no President--not even a United States. China rules the Americas, and to most people 'US' and 'USSR' are just quaint abbreviations in historical dictionaries. But the aliens prove unreasonable about accepting substitutes. So one Anglo rice-cultivator from the Heavenly Grain Collective farm near Biloxi, Mississippi is forced to begin an adventure that will take him from peasant to President, from Pettyman to Spaceman."
Black Star Rising has a noble start: "It's the late twenty-first century. The USA and USSR have destroyed each other in a catastrophic nuclear exchange, and China now rules the Americans." The reader is introduced to a Caucasian workforce in Alabama who are restricted to the farm in which they work. Castor has discovered a human head in the rice fields and is called to the city to deliver his testimony. He becomes embroiled with the Han-descended Police Inspector, the many-minded Professor, and the affairs dealing with a mysterious object approaching Earth. The start is fairly good and lays a great foundation for a prospectively good novel...

... but inevitably the novel must continue. Behind this dignified steed of a novel's start there only follows a long trail of steaming horse apples. Once the "American Cabinet" arrives on alien soil (named World), the plot quickly loses steam with many pages of doubletalk terminology and a bizarre, out-of-the-blue plot twist with its ridiculous self-contained history. What follows is a sexual romp for a small cast of characters parallel to the politicking of people from Earth and the people of World. There are no bombshells dropped in plot (steady as she goes), there is no character enrichment (like a placid lake of boredom) and even the ending receives a shrug of whatever! One more additional observance includes the annoying overuse of the word "fool" and the gratuitous use of exclamation points in the internal bickering within the Professor.

It's one of those shoulder-shrugging books which the reader wades through, tests the water, comes out the other side reasonably unscathed, and ultimately forgets ever wading through the placid waters in the first place. It's been two years since I read this novel (now May 2012) and I couldn't remember one aspect about it without reading my prior review. It's a forgettable novel because of its mundaneness and aimlessness, not because it's irritating from cover to cover like Man Plus, Syzygy, or Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980). Pohl obviously isn't one of my favorite novel-length authors, but he has a prolific amount of short stories which seem to impress me from time to time, such as in The Man Who Ate the World (1960), Midas World (1983), and Pohlstars (1984). Stick to these shorter works and witness the greatness of Pohl through the decades.

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