Stale characters amid a wonder made urbane (2/5)
I’ve read three Shaw books already and, as Joachim has said, he’s proven to be a mediocre talent. While Ground Zero Man (1971) and One Million Tomorrows (1971) both had a decent plot but were robbed by Shaw’s lazy approach at producing something refined; each had a superficial quality which disappointed me. I also read Shaw’s Vertigo (1978) which had some good character points but seemed to drift through Shaw’s general incompetence. Here, Orbitsville, is Shaw’s feather in his cap, which won the British Science Fiction Award in 1976. I’m not impressed with this feather-adorned fedora of Shaw’s.
Rear cover synopsis:
“For centuries the men of Earth had scoured the cosmos for habitable planets, and had found only one. They never found another—but one man discovered something better. Vance Garamond has discovered a Dyson Sphere—a space habitat the interior surface of which is larger than five billion Earths. Alas, from the point of the Powers That Be, the worst thing that could happen was the discovery of a place to which all the disaffected people of the world might flee—that’s why Starflight, Inc. will do anything to keep Garamond’s discovery a secret.
Starflight Inc. rules the world, the solar system, and the galaxy with its iron-fisted grip on the expansion of humanity to other worlds. At the head of this greedy monopoly is the president, Elizabeth (Liz)Lindstrom—powerful yet corrupted, aging yet precocious, welcoming yet back-stabbing. Vance, three-time star pilot, must play the part of the sexual prey to the president’s predator instinct prior to his departure. To bide the time, Vance accepts to babysit her son in the mansion. However, her son is also ruled by an iron fist and relishes the freedom under Vance’s watch. As the son climbs a statue, Vance realizes his mistake, but the damage to his reputation and his future flashes before his eyes as he sees the boy tumble to the ground, striking his head on the stone dais, and die. His first instinct: run!
Before his dereliction of duty and irresponsibility are discovered, Vance gathers his son and demure wife in order to escape the inevitable wrath of Liz. His skills with spaceflight and his connections with various flight crews on Earth and in orbit enable him to flee from the most immediate effect of Liz’s insatiable fury. Once docked into a berth, Vance uses his rank and persuasiveness to push the starship out of Earth’s orbit and into a path which will save his family.
Acting on a hunch from an old myth, Vance and his dedicated yet shanghaied spacecrew aim for a place on an alien map which shows a landmark without any starlight. Hoping for an inhabitable world to settle upon and having the crew return to Earth, Vance directs the starship to the location where a massive sphere envelops a space with a diameter beyond Mars’ orbit. The material resists all attempts at measurement and any clue as to the existence of the object is only met with wild speculation rather than quantitative results. Eventually, a single kilometer-wide port is found. A landing party descends to the sphere’s metallic skin, peer into the hole, and pull themselves up into a field of grass and an atmosphere of oxygen.
They settle the vast grasslands around the starry lake which magically separates the vacuum of space from the rich, life-giving atmosphere of the Dyson Sphere. Dubbed Orbitsville, the crew organize themselves to establish a settlement using their ship’s factories, converters, and synthesizers. News is sent back to Earth telling of the unimaginably immense tracts of land ready for human settlement, for which Vance becomes an international hero. To witness this impressive structure and congratulate its discoverer, Liz sends an armada of eighty ships to the Sphere with herself at the helm. Vance considers himself untouchable given his newly found stardom and Liz’s calm demeanor and reassuring words sets Vance on an uneasy precipice between acceptance and leeriness. Should Vance accept Liz’s embrace as his dull wife suggests or should he stick to his gut and distrust the haggard magnate?
An orbiting body outside Orbitsville draws Vance’s attention because of some misinformation being spread about the aboriginal aliens’ massacre on the planetoid, when in reality the aliens are benign and uncommunicative to an animal degree. While probing the planetoid, Vance learns that his sheepish wife and son have been welcomed to Liz’s abode. Alarmed for their safety, he sets off back to Orbitsville only to have his ship’s engines blow, disabling any reasonable attempt for landing procedures and the safety of their own lives. With eight hours left to impact, the crew foster a crazy idea: fly through the port, strike the atmosphere with an ionizing laser, and come out alive… but their survival at reentry at one 100 kilometer per second is uncertain.
Their terrific reentry speed and resulting tumultuous ballistic dive through Orbitsville’s atmosphere deposited the shipwrecked crew some fifteen million kilometers from the sphere’s aperture (the equivalent of nineteen trips to the moon and back). Vance is left with three choices: (1) walk back, an endeavor which would taken generations over a thousand years to complete; (2) establish a settlement, a defeatist point of view and a certain stagnant future; or (3) construct a fleet of ships to make the return journey. Some opt to stay but others enlist for Vance’s return. However, the 2-3 year trip aboard the aircraft seems uncertain when mechanical breakdowns are inevitable and when morale sinks due to cabin fever. Vance’s monomaniacal hatred for Liz drives him back to the aperture.
The exhibition of the Dyson Sphere is the obvious gimmick of Orbitsville. Essentially, it’s a Big Dumb Object, the kind of lore sci-fi geeks crave. Other examples include Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973), Niven’s Ringworld (1970), and Pohl’s Gateway (1977). All these objects, including Orbitsville, serve a mysterious function and display confounding properties beyond the scope of human understanding. This is the essence of exploration in a science fiction novel, but quite often the story accompanying that exploration is rather dull… much as the wonders of Orbitsville are muted by its blunt thrust and dull stereotypes.
Liz is an entrapping corporate president, vindictive and callous. Vance is an illustrious star captain, noble and experienced. Vance’s wife, Aileen, is duller than a moist turd, submissive and vacuous. Vance’s son, Chris, is a characterless entity given a name, hollow and equally as vacuous. And THAT is the cast of Orbitsville. Thank you. Like Chris’s cavernously hollow nature, each character lacks any oomph for the reader to give two cents for any character—Liz is predictable, Vance is the hero, and Aileen and Chris are Vance’s faceless motivation.
If you can stomach the hollow cast, you start to look at the starchy, stereotypical relationships: Liz versus Vance and Aileen versus Vance. The Liz/Vance relationship starts off badly, off course with her son’s death and all, but she seemingly turns the other cheek and offers Vance peace, all the while the reader understands her callous plot at revenge; no plot twists present themselves because Liz and Vance are too predictable. Then the Aileen/Vance relationship, as mentioned numerous times above, is based purely on Vance’s most excellent, unquestionable authority on all matters scientific, logical, etc. while his wife tamely follows her man wherever he may lead, all the while batting her eyelashes and probably making him decent ham sandwiches in the starship’s galley (I assume). For example, here are Vance’s thoughts: “[H]e found himself wishing it were possible to discuss the subject emotionlessly and on an intellectual plane with his wife” (125). Aileen accepts her "lovely wife" so perfectly that she even says, “I’ll be at home to cook you a meal when you arrive” (126), to which Vance kindly mutters to himself, “You silly bitch … Why do you never, ever, never ever, listen to anything I tell you?” (126). Ah, love.
Understand that Orbitsville is bigger than five billion Earths (Compare to Niven’s Ringworld  of one billion Earths and Brown’s Helix  of ten thousand Earths). One would expect an uninhibited exploration of its massive size, but juvenile you would also be because Shaw has had the handbrake on the entire time to demonstrate his skill of writing about strife and determination. There are aliens on Orbitsville but the characters don’t waste their time with them because they’re just too darn difficult to communicate with; to greener pastures they say. Even after four months in the settlement, the initial crew, with Vance, hadn’t even explored beyond a few radial kilometers of their encampment, a simple trek which two engineers accomplish in order to install a communication system for Starflight, Inc. I guess the draw to the novel is the obvious gimmick—accept its size but don’t ask any questions.
If you like the science and mechanics of starflight and Big Dumb Object construction, perhaps Shaw’s occasional lapse into wordiness jargon may appeal to you:
As soon as the signal announcing closure of the docking bay was received, he gave the order for the main drive to be activated. Initial impetus was given the ship [sic?] by the relatively feeble ion thrusters, but the propulsion system was shut down when the ramjet intake field had been fanned out to its maximum area of half-a-million square kilometers and reaction mass was being scavenged from surrounding space. (127)
After Vance and his loyal crew spearpoint at the aperture at 360,000 kilometers per hour (Mach 294), they are flung far, far upon the grassy horizon away from their settlement. If the reader came for the wonders of the Dyson Sphere, the reader must surely be disappointed at this junction in the novel, but should also stay for the relatively decent amount of angst and fortitude displayed by Vance and a select few of his posse who decide to make the 2-3 year flight on jury-rigged planes. It’s a tad far-fetched but Shaw handles it well showing that the makeshift flight isn’t without its peril and poison. Ultimately, this also serves well to conclude the story, albeit with a rushed sort of “I’ll never let you go!” kind of ending.
Shaw produced (I’m not sure if “authored”, “penned” or even “wrote” could apply) two sequels: Orbitsville Departure (1983) and Orbitsville Judgement (1990). Like most sequels written years after the first book, I will stay clear of these lifeless additions to an already static novel. If exploration of a Big Dumb Object is your forte, Eric Brown does a pretty decent job of exploration, world building, and character development in Helix (2007). I don’t think Niven ever did justice to his Ringworld series, so I can’t really recommend it, but I want to re-read it since it’s been a few years.