Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, August 29, 2013

1965: The Escape Orbit (White, James)

Details of escape eclipse the flaws of motivation (4/5)

James White: a middling author famous for his Sector General series, of which some have been hits and others have been duds. This mediocrity extends to his non-series books as well. His novel Lifeboat (1972) felt heavily structured and thus as dry as the emergency protocol card in the airplane pouch, taking on the feeling that it must certainly be for the juvenile audience. Then there’s Tomorrow is Too Far (1971) which had a grand design and mentally titillating unfolding—sophisticated. The Escape Orbit (variant title: Open Prison) was written in the first quarter of White’s career as an author well before his 1980s slew of Sector General novels.

Aside from the collections of Monsters & Medics (1977) and Ambulance Ship (1979), this is the last unread White novel in my collection. I’m keen on his non-series novel, but the draw of the Sector General series has been latent for a while now.

Rear cover synopsis:
“When the survivors of his starship were taken prisoner by the insect-creatures against whom Earth had fought a bitter war for nearly a century, Sector Marshal Warren expected to be impounded in a prison camp like those the Earthmen maintained. But the ‘Bugs’ had a simpler method of dealing with prisoners—they dumped them on an uninhabited planet, without weapons or tools, and left them to fend for themselves against the planet’s environment and strange monsters. A ‘Bug’ spaceship orbited above, guarding them.

Escape was impossible, the ‘Bugs’ told them—but it was absolutely necessary, for reasons Warren couldn’t tell even his own men.”


Imprisoned in a Bug ship awaiting transport to their holding facility, the crew of Warren’s ship expect similar conditions to their current cell: stale air, artificial food, and watchful eyes above. They are transferred to an atmospheric ship, rather than a spaceliner, where they catch a glimpse of a luscious planet below. The ship descends on rockets, they are kicked out of the ship, and the ships speeds away back into orbit. Their disbelief is as dramatic as some of their injuries—they have been left on the surface of a planet, without walls or guards, yet also without provisions or assistance.

Their descent to the surface had been witnessed by competing bands of prisoners who confront Warren’s crew. These prisoners, also once enlisted men fighting in the war with the Bugs, assess Warren’s rank and his immediately make him decided which camp to choose—the camp of “civilians”, who aim to adapt to the planet and make it their own or the camp of the committee, whose one desire is to find a way off the godforsaken planet and return to fight the war.

Unbeknownst to the bands of men, Warren outranks all of them as Sector Marshal and, therefore, is the honorary head of the Committee. His leadership approach of “taking the bull by the horns” is appreciated by the already committed member of the escape plan, but the civilians are nonplussed by his long-term drive and desire for everyone’s involvement. While some plans for escape call for a homemade spaceship and direct assault on the guard ship in orbit, Warren is most struck by the ingenuity of the Anderson Plan which calls for high levels of subterfuge, hijacking, and hurdles of assumption.

In order for the plan to succeed, cooperation between sects and villages, committee and civilian camps must be sought. Deciding a fixed date is best for motivation, Warren begins his massive with more than 1,000 days leading up to the day of escape. The men grin with irony at the T-minus 1,033-day mark.

The itemized agenda for the master escape plan entails a massive amount of detail ranging from cross-continental logistics, to digging a maze tunnels, to casting iron, to reproducing the Bug atmosphere—all of this to be done without modern technology and under the watchful eye of the guard ship. Inventiveness and coordination are the two most essential keys to the plan and Warren has them in his hand, but there still remains the group of civilians—enlisted members who have rescinded their duties—who secretly concoct ways to deter Warren’s plans in one way or another: “Like his arguments, they [the civilians] needed to be worked into better shape. Because it had become very plain to Warren that the main obstacle to the success of the Escape was not, as he had hitherto thought, the Bug guardship” (63). The opposition’s sloth hampers progress, their destruction of property ruins the need for camouflage, and their manipulation of protocols aim to unbalance Warren’s firm stance on escape.

Through Warren’s gift of social foresight and knack for problem solving on the fly, he is able to deaden the impact of the sabotage and focus on the goal—escape. The opposition’s last attempt at executing the escape plan, with hundreds of days’ work complete and decades of man-hours invested, comes by word of a recent prisoner—his message of mutual Human and Bug defeat aims to destabilize Warren’s gung-ho attitude of escape, but little does anyone know that Warren actually has more reason than it seems. Beyond mere faith and logic, Warren is destined to prevail over the planet and the guard ship.


The novel’s premise is simple and alluring.
The actual plan for escape is logical and appealing.
The on-goings are feasible and compelling.
It’s all a bit too neat, however. Everything, with mighty Warren at the helm, goes smoothly, predictably. Warren can do no wrong and even the women find him sexually attractive; he’s the ideal hero who the men wish to become and the women wish to be with. In essence, the hero is a great leader yet without character, he has a great vision yet without a history, and he has reassurance without any track record. So, while everything it prim and proper and has its place, it’s all too neat, too structured.

One aspect which falls flat is the role of women on the planet, in society, in the committee, and in the Escape plan. Is this glaring flaw White’s intention or White’s ignorance? It boils down to this: women shouldn’t be trusted with information because they’re naturally too emotional; women shouldn’t be involved with the heavy work because they are too weak and should be concerned about rearing children; women should stick to the simplest of tasks because of their inexperience, feebleness, and illogic. The entire planet, society, committee, and Escape plan is a misogynistic “boys only” club. The one female with a lead role, Warren’s chief psychologist, while intellectual and influential, succumbs to her womanly duty and the subtle charms of Warren—she falls in love.

As mentioned, the lure of the book is the plan of escape. Thankfully, White nails this point. All of the planning, throughout two-thirds of the novel, is meticulous and necessary. Mentally keeping the string of details is fascinating but actually reading the fast-paced escape is more captivating; deaths ensue, small details go awry, and success seems imminent. While the reader is privy to the details of the escape on the surface of the planet, once the hijackers are airborne, the reader experiences the point-by-point advance and retreat with rapt attention.

The motivation for escape is understandably palpable, but White offers very little background on the history of the Bugs or the Humans, the onset of the war between the two, and the warring affairs of the either side. If the humans are to be made sympathetic characters, the reader would want to know the militaristic drive to vanquish the enemy. The enemy, in this case, has a generic name and nothing else. Considering the humans were captured and imprisoned with some level of decency, any attempt of hostility against the aliens seems excessive. The war-like passion which humans desire appears to be funneled into a pressing need to kill the enemy in the name of some intangible goal. Case in point: I sympathized with the aliens in the conclusion rather than the humans.


The original ace paperback edition has 188 pages. The conclusion was tidy… to a point, but the level of detail involved with the planning needed an outlet—a sequel. The Bug benevolence toward prisoners is unexplored and the Bug aliens are generally untouched (aside from a few splashes of blood). I rarely ever say a novel needs a sequel, but The Escape Orbit would be one novel which could spawn a decent continuance. While White’s take on women and aliens is without effort, his attention to detail on the most crucial part of the novel—the escape, itself—is grand. Come for the escape, stay for the escape, and pay scant detail to the glaring flaws.

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